Last updated: February 28th 2019
In this article you will learn:
1. Reinventing an old tradition
People have been making paper out of various plant materials for a long time. It was only in the last centuries that the demand for paper skyrocketed. The two main contributing factors that made this possible were the invention of wood-based paper around 1800 and the development of mechanical pulping (paper making machines) in Germany around 1840.  Making it a fairly ‘new innovation‘.
Fast forward to the present
In 2016 an estimated 4 billion trees were cut down for the paper industry . Though graphic paper numbers have stagnated in the last years, the demand for cardboard and packaging materials is on a continuous rise. No surprise, really, in the day and age where anything can be ordered online and more and more people (inlcuding me 🙁 ) prefer to shop online.
In Germany, where I live, the average consume of paper and packaging material averages 240-260 kg per person per year. According to a WWF report in 2006 Germany’s combined comsumption of paper equals the combined consumption of South America and Africa together.
This makes our relatively small country the worst in the rankings, closely followed by the United Staates (229 kg per person per year), Japan (218 kg), Sweden (200 kg) and Canada (171 kg).
Sustainable paper that comes with a mission statement
Maybe it is because of this background that some German citizens are working hard on finding more sustainable solutions. For example, Uwe D’Agnone, the CEO and founder of CreaPaper.
He has committed himself to make the paper industry more resource-efficient and sustainable, which is why he founded his company seven years ago. Together with the University of Bonn he then researched which raw material alternatives could be used to make paper. Eventually narrowing it down to grass.
Sustainability is a mind set
But that’s not enough for D’Argone and his team at CreaPaper. Their vision is broader than that. In order to make all steps of the process as sustainable as possible, the paper mills get their hay supplies only from local famers who live within a 100km distance. This keeps the C02 footprint for transportation low and helps the local/regional economy.
To not take away important land for agriculture (cattle grazing), only grass from unused land is harvested.
2. Difficulties and Successes
I love the idea of grass paper. When I first heard about it I thought it is an amazing idea. An idea that should be implemented all around the world – right away. Because I love trees and I see a huge potential here to protect more trees, simply by the fact that they would not needed for paper as much as before.
So for me it is hard to understand why the paper industry was rather cautious and skeptical about the new paper. But apparently, it was quite a challenge to find a paper mill that was willing to run a test run and see if the grass paper could be made using convention paper making machines. Everyone was scared that the pellets could damage the machines.
Fortunately, there was a big name client who was interested in using the sustainable packaging material in the future and thanks to them a paper mill could be found. After the first production tests were done, more assesments were necessary to test the paper for allergens, compostability, recyclability and food safety. Once these tests were passed the paper, cardboard and other packaging materials could now be introduced to the market. Here the packaging materials and cardboards quickly attracted the first clients.
Since then grass paper products for packaging have quickly grown in popularity. They even won a few awards, like the German Innovation award for Climate and Environment or the KfW award, along the way.
Setting a foot into the book printing industry was rather slow, but thanks to the start-up Matabooks the grass paper, that smells like hay, has now found it’s way into bookstores too.
By now there are twelve paper mills using GrasPap® in Germany and two more abroad – in Italy and the Neatherlands.
3. What exactly makes grass paper so great?
Traditional paper is made of wood cellulose or recycled wood cellulose fibres. The problem with these is that they contain lignin (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lignin). Lignin’s main role is to provide stability and it can be found in cell walls. Especially wood and bark contain a lot of it, which explains why they are very rigid and unflexible. Which makes it rather undesirable for paper. Ligning also makes paper turn yellow when exposed to air for a while. (In case you ever wondered: That’s why newspapers, which use paper pulp with a relatively high percentage of lignin, eventually turn yellow.)
It therefore needs to be removed from the pulp, a process called delignification. And it is this process that gives paper making a bad footprint as it is the source of significant environental concerns*.(Wikipedia)
“By replacing wood fibres with grass fibres the C02 imprint can be reduced by 75%.“
4. Wood versus Grass – a quick overview
I have found different numbers on how much it takes of what to create a ton of paper from wood pulp or grass pulp. But roughly it can be said that it looks like this:
5,000 – 6,000litres of water for 1 ton
5,000 kW h (kilowatt hours) for 1 ton
Source: wood pulp – often imported, and if not FSC certified it likely could be from illegally cut tropical rainforests!) – Do we really want and need that??
Slow regrowing resource (takes decades to grow)
Process: Delignification (using chemics)
High costs (raw material)
1-2 litres of water for 1 ton
137kW h for 1 ton
Source: locally obtained grass, from land that is not used for agriculture (cattle grazing) and is considered ‘unused’
Fast regrowing resource (takes only months to grow, can be harvested 1-2 times/year)
Process: Purely mechanical – Fibres get air-dried, cleaned, cut, grounded and turned into (hay) pellets for better storage & transportation
Up to 40% reduced costs for raw material
75% of C02 savings,
about 80% energy savings
Huge water savings (1-2 litres instead of 5,000-6,000 litres)
Depending on the product, up to 51% of the grass pulp gets used in the grass papers and cardboards. The other fibres come from recycled paper, FSC® certified wood pulp or a mix of both.**
5. How can the paper contribute to greatly reduce not only Germany’s but the whole world’s CO2 footprit?
I’m glad to see that the news are spreading and the paper is becoming more popular. I believe that by switching to environmentally friendly grass-paper we can definitely make the world a better and a bit more sustainable place.
Just thinking of the reduced impact it has on forests alone makes me really happy.
- **‘Paper and cardboard made of grass’ – Article by Biooekonomie.de (in English)