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European cities give their dead leaves to this startup to turn them into shopping bags and paper

A fall leaf and rain drops are seen through a vehicle's sunroof Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C.
A fall leaf and rain drops are seen through a vehicle's sunroof Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. Copyright Chris Carlson/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Chris Carlson/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Vincent Vitis
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The paper industry buys more than 30% of all the industrial wood sold worldwide.

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Using dead leaves rather than healthy trees to make paper: that's the idea behind Ukrainian startup Releaf Paper.

While still at school, founder Valentyn Frechka used his passion for biochemistry to find new ways to make cellulose, the key ingredient in paper.

After a failed experiment with grass and straw, he discovered that it was possible to extract fibre from leaves.

After creating a working prototype, he relocated to Paris due to the war in Ukraine, and founded Releaf Paper alongside his partner Alexandre Sobolenko.

Is paper made from leaves better for the environment?

Using a combination of chemical and mechanical processes, Releaf produces one tonne of cellulose from 2.3 tonnes of dead leaves. 

It would usually take 17 trees to produce the same amount.

Cities around Europe give Releaf dead leaves they have collected off their streets, instead of burning them as many places usually do.

“We are working only with the leaves that we are getting from the cities because we cannot use the leaves from the forest. It's not easy to collect them in the forest, and there is no need because there's an ecosystem. 

“In a city, it’s a green waste that should be collected. Really, it's a good solution because we are keeping the balance - we get fibre for making paper and return a lignin as a semi-fertiliser for the cities to fertilise the gardens or the trees. So it's like a win-win model,” explains Frechka. 

Releaf's process involves removing any solid compounds from the leaves, drying them then turning them into pellets. This allows them to store the raw material all year round and ensure a continuous production cycle. 

The pellets are converted into a special fibre that forms the basis of the paper. The resulting pulp is pressed and rolled into sheets of paper

What is the environmental impact of paper production?

Releaf Paper estimates that its process emits 78 per cent less CO2 than traditional production, and uses 15 times less water

‘Leaf-based paper degrades in the soil in 30 days, whereas the degradation period for ordinary paper is 270 days or more,’ says Releaf Paper.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) the paper industry accounts for 13-15 per cent of total wood consumption and uses 33-40 per cent of all industrial wood sold worldwide.

Is paper made from leaves as durable as normal paper?

The company sells paper from 70 to 300 g/m² suitable for a variety of uses from packaging paper (bags, e-commerce envelopes, etc.) to cardboard packaging (corrugated boxes, egg cartons). 

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The startup produces around three million shopping bags a month and customers include L'Oréal, Samsung, LVMH, Logitech, Google and Schneider Electric.

The young Ukrainian will open his first commercial factory just outside of Paris in July and hopes to eventually have production plants all across the world. 

With a capacity to process 5,000 tonnes of leaves per year, the first site, partly financed by the European Union, will receive green waste from the City of Paris

Based at Station F in Paris, the young entrepreneur, who has already won several awards since the start of his venture, is one of three finalists for the European Patent Office's (EPO) Young Inventor 2024 prize. The results will be announced on 9 July. 

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Watch the video above to learn more about producing paper from dead leaves. 

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