As the backlash against single-use plastic packaging grows, the market for paper packaging is increasing—but the demand for paper also means more logging, some of which still happens in old-growth forests. Some companies are beginning to turn to materials other than wood for paper. One option: Making paper partly from grass.
Making “grasspaper,” a mix of as much as half-grass and half-wood pulp, reduces the need for wood, and also shrinks the environmental impact of processing the fibers into paper. Creapaper, a German startup, designed the product. “When visiting a traditional pulp production factory and seeing the enormous amount of water, chemicals, and energy needed to turn wood into soft pulp, our founder Uwe [D’Agnone] developed an obsession to find new alternative materials for papermaking,” says Michael Schatzschneider, CFO of Creapaper.
After experimenting with various materials, from sugar beets to tomato leaves, D’Agnone discovered that straw from grass—turned into something that the startup called “graspap”—was a viable drop-in solution that could be used at existing paper mills. Grass is dried into hay, and then processed into pellets that are delivered to the paper mill. “The real challenge was to find a paper mill willing to run real life tests on the papermaking machines,” says Schatzschneider. Larger mills weren’t interested, but eventually some small family-run paper mills agreed to run tests and confirmed that the process worked.
The material can cut water use during paper production by 99%, the company says, and save 97% of the energy use. Wood-pulp production requires the heavy use of chemicals, like sodium sulphate, which react to break down the wood, but making paper from grass eliminates the need for those chemicals. CO2 emissions also drop by at least 70%, Schatzschneider says, because of the energy savings. Others, like the U.K.-based environmental research organization Nafici, are working on packaging made from different alternative materials, like agricultural waste, to reduce the environmental impact of making paper. Also, grass can regrow much more quickly than trees.
Creapaper says that grass can be sourced from anywhere—even backyards—but in Germany, it’s easily accessible on farms. “In Germany and Europe, we see a massive expansion of abandoned grassland,” says Schatzschneider. “The cattle population is shrinking, and grassland, meadows, and pastures [are] no longer needed for cattle. Since grassland is a natural sink for methane and other GhG, most federal states do not allow [farmers] to plow and to turn it into agriculture land for wheat and straw.” In the German state of Bavaria alone, he says, nearly half a million acres of “abandoned” grassland exists, with around a million tons of grass that could be used for paper production.
The paper made from this grass can be turned into a variety of products, from bags and cardboard to tissue paper, each using a different blend of grass and wood pulp. It’s still more expensive than standard paper because it’s being made in small quantities, but that would change with larger production, Schatzschneider says. Grass is cheaper than wood as a raw material. Ranpak, a U.S.-based packaging company, just invested in Creapaper and plans to help it expand its range of products.