It’s easy to get swept up in the news and activities of the industry’s global titans, but what about the smaller firms that are out there flexing their creative muscles? In our second instalment of ‘Start-up of the month’ – which celebrates the lesser-known companies and their innovations – we hear from Alexander Sobolenko, CEO and co-founder of Ukraine-based Releaf Paper, an innovative company turning urban fallen leaves into packaging for the food and beverage industry, among others. Read the full interview below.
Could you tell us a bit more about Releaf Paper and the reasons behind its inception?
Releaf Paper is the world’s first producer of paper made from fallen leaves. We process leaves and other green wastes gathered by urban utility services from streets into pulp and paper for the packaging industry. In doing so, we replace virgin pulp paper with a sustainable alternative, preventing deforestation, reducing carbon emissions and helping cities to dispose of seasonal green wastes.
In the beginning, there was a technology for extracting fibres from leaves, invented by Releaf’s current co-founder and CTO Valentyn Frechka. Five years ago – as 16 years old student – he invented this disruptive and unique method of production pulp. After two years of tests and pilots, and with help from the WWF, the technology was finally completed. But running a business is a bit different from leading a school science project! Therefore, we created the company Releaf Paper, where I’m responsible for business administration and development, and Valentyn is focused on the technical side.
How do you go about collecting the leaves for your packaging products?
Here we have not invented the wheel – we use already up-and-running processes. Most European cities have their own utility services that collect the leaves from the streets. We simply pick up what they’ve collected. Usually, that’s a mixture of leaves of different plants and tree species, together with grass and small branches. Our technology allows us to process them all.
Could you explain the process of how the leaves are turned into packaging, particularly those developed for the food and beverage sector?
After cleaning and washing the leaves, we process them into pulp filler (raw materials for making paper). After the production of paper, which is carried out for us by a contracted mill, we convert this sustainable leafy paper into packaging or sell the paper as is. Our know-how is in the production of pulp and filler. These raw materials could be used either for paper production or for molding packaging production. Currently, most of the finished products are made by outsourced partners. At the moment, we are focused on paper bags, which could be used also for the food and beverage sector.
Are you working with any notable food and beverage companies? How have these partnerships strengthened Releaf’s work and reach?
We see great interest from the food and beverage industry, which is seeking new sources of fibre, and innovative and sustainable products. I can’t declare that we already work with any notable companies from this sector, but we are in negotiations or testing mode with several really big international players. The process is quite long and complicated for the F&B industry, and sometimes it takes up to one year to start a pilot. Meanwhile, other industries like cosmetics or retail are much more flexible and decisive. Thus we already piloted with Loreal, Chanel, Weleda, Kiehl’s, Schneider Electric and Samsung.
How do you ensure your packaging meets strict regulations/standards?
This is a real challenge for us because we created a new material that exceeds existing standards. We are trying to comply with the most common certificates, but sometimes we have to create our own. The food and beverage industry has the highest requirements among those that we approach. An additional problem for us is that every big player in this industry has its own list of requirements. Being a start-up with limited resources, we try our best but sometimes cannot comply with some of them. Flexibility and a cooperative approach – this is what we expect from our partners and customers.
Could you discuss some of Releaf’s most recent innovations in this space?
We have many developments that currently remain at the laboratory level. For example, we have been exploring the fibres of pineapple waste from Costa Rica and have created samples of “pineapple paper” that could be used both for packaging or for hygienic products – such as tissues and toilet paper.
Also in June, we introduced a new model of material called Releaf Paper 2.0. It consists of leaves and wastepaper, and has significantly enhanced mechanical properties and a very aesthetic surface. There are a lot of developments ahead, but we desperately need market acceptance, especially from big companies, otherwise most of these great innovations will remain in the laboratory.
What’s next for Releaf? And, more generally, what is next for the packaging sector?
Our main task now is to launch a pulp factory that is capable of producing 10,000 tons of material annually in France. It should be operational by the end of 2024. Following this, we plan to purchase at least three other factories in Europe within the next five years. Our only investor at the moment is the European Commission, but we will engage with more lead investors later this year.
In addition to Europe, we are interested in placing factories in North America, Japan and South Korea. For that stage, most likely we will implement licensing model. Meanwhile, we are focused on the go-to-market with a current model of kraft paper, actively negotiating with European customers.
We believe in a sustainable future and encourage the food and beverage industry to support us in our great and complicated mission to make the packaging not only functional but also sustainable.
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