Foliage Lives on – in Packaging
Newspapers, books, bags, moving boxes: there is hardly a paper product that does not state that it was made from recovered paper. But the start-up Releaf Paper does without wastepaper and produces packaging material with leaves as a natural raw material.
Autumn is just around the corner, and in the coming weeks parks, streets, and gardens in cities will once again be littered with leaves freshly fallen from the trees. The employees of the urban green space planning offices run through the cities with their leaf blowers, the leaves are collected and transported away. In most cases, the leaves end up in composting facilities. The start-up Releaf Papers (link to https://www.releaf-paper.com/), however, diverts the leaves on their way to compost, keeping the natural resource further in the cycle. Based on technology developed by one of the company’s founder, Valentyn Frechko, the young company uses the leaves to produce paper. Frechko began looking for alternatives to cellulose while still in high school, studying the fibers of leaves. Through numerous experiments, he found that the foliage contained fibers similar to those found in trees and could be reused. In 2021, he then founded Releaf Paper together with Alexander Sobolenko, at that time still based in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Trees Are Not Felled
Frechko and his partner Alexander Sobolenko emphasize that only fallen foliage is used for the production of the paper, not a single tree is felled. In this way, they want to reduce the annual proportion of around three million hectares of felled forests worldwide. For them, it is also a matter of preventing the leaves from being burned, as this produces a very high number of emissions of various pollutants and particulate matter. There would be no cost for the foliage as a raw material, and CO₂ emissions could be reduced by 78 percent without the use of chemicals. The leaves are delivered for this purpose by the cities; and there are no limits on the types of trees, according to Sobolenko. In the next steps, the leaves are cleaned of solid foreign matter, dried, and granulated. Then follows a transformation into a stable fiber, and after the addition of a special reagent, the paper rolls are finally produced by paper machines.
Sales in 14 European Countries
For the production of the paper, Releaf Paper cooperates with paper mills in Europe, primarily in Ukraine. “The development of the raw material is with us, then it goes to the mills. They can then start production immediately, as they don’t need any additives,” Sobolenko explains. “Currently, we are building a larger pulp mill in France.” He says the delivery time for ordered goods averages 30 days.
There are also goods that are stored centrally in Europe, with which delivery is possible the day after the order is placed, he says. “So far, we sell exclusively in Europe, we have customers in 14 countries from Malta to Iceland,” Sobolenko says. For the Ukrainian start-up, he says, the focus is on B2B business; and they are now increasingly turning to smaller companies. The paper is primarily offered on rolls, he says, with customers then taking over the selection of the desired product and the production of materials such as packaging, paper bags, printer paper, or reusable tableware. “The possible products can be seen in the online store (https://releafbag.com/uk-ua), and we are constantly expanding the portfolio.” For paper bags, he says, the maximum size is 380 x 320 mm, with up to 500 mm possible.
New Factories Planned in Europe
The company, which has moved its headquarters from Kiev to Paris, has only one external investor in the European Innovative Council Found, a body of the European Commission. It is joined by companies and NGOs as sponsors. When the new factory starts operations, the two directors are targeting annual sales of 15 million euros. They don’t intend to stop there, as they plan to open more factories within Europe, increasing sales to 120 million euros over the next eight years, they report.