Paper plates usually begin like other types of paper, as wood that is changed in pulp. Wood consists of many tiny fibers bonded together in the tree's natural xylem structure. To make paper, these bonds must be broken down. For recycled paper, this is a fairly easy process and involves only breaking synthetic bonds. The bonds in wood dust are tougher and must be broken down using a combination of hot water and powerful chemicals. The wood dust is swirled in a large vat until the glues dissolved and are drained away.
What is left is only pulp--the individual fibers of the wood in a large, clumpy mass, much easier to form and mold into other shapes. Typically, the pulp goes through several filter procedures to remove all types of dirt and any other contaminates. The result is a pulp solution that brown in color, so many paper-manufacturing plants put the solution through a bleaching process that turns it white. This makes it much easier to mold into different shapes, colors, and designs.
Paper plates are made using a special paper-plate machine. There different varieties of this machine, but they all work along the same principles. The pulp is taken in its solution form and extruded, or filtered, and then blown through pipes with powerful bursts of air that inject it into special molds. These molds are shaped in large sheets that have paper-plate shapes already imprinted on them. The pulp is pressed and dried in these shapes. The paper can be dyed in different colors and stamped with varying designs. Other machines cut out the paper plates from the sheet and send them along for packaging.
Wood pulp is only one source of paper plates. Many other materials are used, and each has a different quality. Pulp paper is clean and generally is the most resistant to oils, which makes it useful for almost any type of food. Other paper plates are made from sugar-cane fibers left over from the sugar-making process, or other vegetable materials from similar processes. These plates are more environmentally friendly but also tend to be weaker, and they dissolve more easily in the presence of heat and moisture.