I have a part-time job at a place where printing, copying, scanning, faxing, and shredding happens every day. Thus, we have about two large cabinets with about 56 reams of paper (packs of 500 sheets) in each cabinet. Of course, even though we use paper every day, we don't use that much, so many reams of paper go untouched for nearly 2 months. Then, when the new supply of paper comes in, they usually go right in the more-empty cabinet, leaving the full cabinet (of 2 month old paper) untouched for yet another 2 months.

My coworker (secretary, some lady) keeps telling me that I should make sure to not just keep taking paper from one cabinet, but rather alternate between the two. When I ask her why, she says "because the paper gets old and yellow."

On what time-scale is this true/significant? If the paper is in a closed cabinet, sealed inside a paper-cover, wouldn't it essentially not change for hundreds of years (if untouched)?

I can't help but think that this is just some common misconception/myth.

  • 2
    I don't have links to this, hence this is a comment instead of an answer, but having worked in a laboratory at a pulp processing plant, I can tell you that is absolutely true; it wont need centuries, but it wont happen in a few months. Paper pulp is naturally brown, and has to be bleached white. With time (and temperature), pulp reverts to its natural brown colour. You can observe this effect in old books, as their pages tend to be darker at their outer edges. I have books I bought 30 years ago that have a definitely tan colour. – Diego Sánchez Mar 12 '15 at 17:40
  • 2
    I would think how much moisture there is in the air would also be a factor, but I have no source on that. – DoubleDouble Mar 12 '15 at 17:45
  • 4
    Please cite a notable claim. – gerrit Mar 12 '15 at 19:12
  • Anecdotally I have used paper that must have been years and years old, but that's hardly an answer. (And I am surprised this question is on skeptics.SE... is this really a notable claim? As I have never even hear anybody suggest anything like this) – David Mulder Mar 12 '15 at 19:46
  • 1
    @DavidMulder Well apparently quite a few of the older folk that I work with take this as fact. – Arturo don Juan Mar 12 '15 at 20:02

Your co-worker is right, normal paper deteriorates due to its acidity and due to oxidation.

Paper in Europe was originally made from cellulose sourced from linen and cotton rags. This made strong paper structures, owing to the long cellulose chains. The degree of polymerisation - a measure of the average number of glucose molecules in a polymer chain - is high for papers made from linen (3500) and cotton (1000-3000), and this means the chains are tightly bound into the fibrils and fibres by extensive hydrogen bonding.

However, following the invention of the printing press and the enormous surge in demand for paper in the nineteenth century, most paper in our hands today is made from cellulose extracted from wood pulp. Cotton and linen sourced cellulose is now usually reserved for special purposes such as banknotes and artists' materials. While wood is a much more readily available source, the resulting paper has shorter cellulose chains (with a degree of polymerisation around 600-1000) and a weaker structure.

Wood also contains a variety of other carbohydrates and lignin. Lignin is a three-dimensional polymeric material that gives woody plants their physical strength. However, it reduces the strength of paper by interfering with the way the cellulose fibres assemble. For low value paper items, such as newspapers, cheap books and ephemera (material produced for one-off use but now of historical importance), the wood pulps would only be minimally purified to remove lignin. This means they are often the most fragile and rapidly deteriorating materials.

(Quoted from Michael Seery on the Website of the Royal Society of Chemistry)

Generally, however, this becomes a problem after decades of storage. Storing paper in a closed cabinet a few months longer than necessary will not affect its quality.

  • 14
    Can you provide some reference for that last paragraph: i.e. "becomes a problem after decades of storage", and "a few months ... will not affect its quality". My personal opinion is that the statement is true, but that may not be the opinion of the OP's coworker; so some reference/evidence would be good (and is, presumably, the reason for posting the question on Skeptics). – ChrisW Mar 12 '15 at 16:51
  • 8
    Using their LIFO model, the paper at the bottom of the cabinet could end up staying there for years before it's finally used (perhaps when they buy a new cabinet and invert the stack when the move the existing paper to it), not just a few months. – Johnny Mar 12 '15 at 18:55
  • 9
    -1 Everyone knows paper ages eventually; this question is about the time-scale that happens in. Only the final paragraph attempts to answer that, and gives no source. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Mar 12 '15 at 23:16
  • 1
    @ChrisW: Would you really expect a reference for that, other than personal experience? FWIW, I have documents printed on standard office copy paper that are 10-20 years old, and they have not noticably yellowed yet. – jamesqf Mar 13 '15 at 4:15
  • 4
    @jamesqf: Yes, I expect a reference for that. This is the Skeptics Stackexchange, not Yahoo Answers. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Mar 13 '15 at 16:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .