You’ve Heard of Plant-Based Meat – Get Ready for Tree-Free Paper

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Bluecat Paper Founder Kavya Madappa talks to Jumpstart about the need to adopt sustainable practices while making paper.

Kavya Madappa has been running a spa resort in Coorg, Karnataka, for nearly 12 years. This meant that she had to extensively use paper for printing brochures, cards, and billing for various purposes. The many trips to the printers further opened her eyes to the amount of chemicals that were used on these papers.

Furthermore, Madappa, who grew up around the rich, verdant forests of Coorg, loved trees and didn’t like the fact they had to be cut down to make paper. So, she decided to do something about it.

“I started speaking to a few people to find out how you could make paper in a clean, sustainable way,” Madappa tells Jumpstart. She found out that paper could be made from many other substances, even including cotton rags and cloth.

Wanting to know more, she then began talking to experts involved in making paper from such materials, took up courses in the field, and eventually set up her paper-making factory in Peenya in Bengaluru in 2017.

Kavya Madappa

Today, Madappa’s startup, Bluecat Paper, offers over 600 products made from flax, cotton rags, lemongrass, mulberry, coconut husk, rice stubble, coffee husks, banana stumps, and even elephant excrement. The products include paper made from different materials, notebooks, journals, bags, gift wraps, coasters, calendars, and more.

The need to go sustainable

“You cut at least 3 billion trees a year just for paper. And, it takes eight to ten years for it to become a tree,” Madappa explains. “Meanwhile, when it is becoming a tree, you already have a system that is in that ecosystem of soil, birds, animals, and everything that lives there. When you destroy so many billion trees in a year, you’re definitely going to cause an impact.”

According to a 2015 report, 42% of global wood harvest goes into making paper. Since 1990, around 420 million hectares of forest have been lost globally through deforestation. Between 2015 and 2020, the annual rate of deforestation was estimated to be 10 million hectares.

Madappa says that cellulose is the main ingredient required to make paper. However, trees have only 40% cellulose. “So that means it’s not such a great candidate to make paper, to begin with,” she says.

In contrast, lemongrass or cotton have about 80 to 95% cellulose, making them a better choice for paper. Since its inception, Madappa claims that her startup has saved around 30,000 trees.

Madappa with completed sheet of paper

The paper and pulp industry is not only contributing to deforestation but is one of the heaviest users of freshwater. It takes around 10 to 20 liters of water to make one A4 sheet of paper and hence, the process of making paper is estimated to use more water to produce one ton of product than any other industry.

Additionally, Madappa says that the conventional paper is made using around 80 chemicals, which are extremely toxic to the environment when they are discharged into waterways. The presence of chemicals also makes them unfit for recycling.

“When you’re making paper with trees, because of the chemicals, the water becomes black. Even though you recycle it, you won’t get clear [water],” Madappa explains. “All the paper in the world is made white, after which they add the dyes and make it colored. So they always make the base white. [Hence], they have to discard a lot of water.”

Bluecat Paper solves this issue in two ways: one, they avoid the use of any chemicals, which makes their paper and process clean. Second, they have an Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) on their factory premises, which recycles water and is reused in production. In this way, they save around 30,000 liters of water per day.

Furthermore, Madappa says that the conventional paper sometimes takes up to a year to decompose. Whereas Bluecat’s paper hardly takes three to four days to decompose, she claims. Meanwhile, as Bluecat’s papers are handmade, producing them consumes less power, whereas the conventional paper and pulp industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy.

Making sustainable paper

“As I studied about paper making, I got to know that you can make it from so much waste – you can make it from lemongrass waste, rice stubble, coffee, and tea husks,” Madappa says. “When you already have so much waste around that can make the same paper, you don’t need to cut trees to make paper anymore.”

Once Madappa understood this, she didn’t want to make it on a small scale; she wanted to make a difference. She then invested in the necessary equipment and machinery and started testing it. Many trials and errors followed.

All papers at Bluecat are handmade using the age-old paper-making process. First, the rags are chopped and put in beaters to make a pulp, which is then used to make the paper. If the raw material is fiber, it is first washed and cooked. Once cooked, it is rinsed again before making the pulp. In the case of using elephant excrement fiber, it is cleaned and disinfected before cooking.

“It’s not really rocket science to make paper. But it’s an absolute joy to get strong, thin sheets of paper,” Madappa says.

Paper making in progress

Every month, Bluecat sources around 20,000 kg of agro and industrial waste from farmers in and around the factory’s vicinity. Coffee husk is sourced from estates in Coorg, and elephant excrement comes from the Dubare elephant camp.

However, Madappa says that sustainability and being handmade comes with a price.

“The mill-made paper has been around for nearly 300 years. It’s made in large volumes and even the technology of the printers [is such that] they support the paper that is smooth and chemically filled up,” she says. She adds that large-scale adoption of sustainable paper will take time.

This incompatibility with conventional printers was one of the major challenges for Bluecat. When the paper is made from fiber, it has a certain texture to it. As a result, when it goes through a printer, sometimes it gets jammed. “So, now we’ve learned how to smoothen the paper out a little bit more by applying some extra pressure [to it],” Madappa explains.

While this is not ideal, the team at Bluecat is constantly innovating and testing new processes, like soaking the fibers for an extra hour. They are also talking to scientists to find out how this can be made easier.

“The most important thing is that you really have to believe in the fact that it will work,” Madappa says. “I already had a spa resort and we had people who wanted me to start another resort somewhere else. To say no to all that and to do something just because you believe it will make a difference.”

Around three years into the business, Madappa says that they are inching closer to breakeven. Currently, the team is experimenting with equipment that can make paper up to 30% faster, which she says can help bring down the cost of the paper.

Additionally, Madappa notes that while Bluecat’s customer base has increased in the last couple of years, Bluecat can only make a great impact if investments pour in from big corporates.

“This has not been an easy journey. But it’s been a rewarding one,” she says. “When more people get to know about it, we hope that they will choose to go tree-free with the paper.”

Images courtesy of Bluecat Paper

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