Ecopreneur Makes Paper in Paradise
“Waste is a resource. But when people think of waste, they usually think of it as trash, rather than asking, ‘What can we do with it?’
“Everything we use at Costa Rica Natural paper products is totally disregarded material,” says Harry Johansing, the company’s founder. “There’s no other use for it. When I approach a new fiber, I look at it as, Is this completely trash? and then I ask, How can I use it?
Costa Rica Natural produces Ecopaper, a high-quality paper made from the discarded agricultural byproducts of bananas, coffee, or tobacco, combined with post-consumer waste. Other specialty papers include byproducts from mango, lemon, and hemp.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed Johansing by phone from his California home. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: How do you approach a new raw material to determine if you want to use it to make paper? Take celery, for example.
JOHANSING: Here’s how I would approach celery. I would look at it on the perishable side; I don’t want to compete for a food source. I’d have to go spend time in the fields, to see how it grows. I like to work with the workers to see what they go through. I’ll spend 2 or 3 days doing the hard labor. I’ll go to the packing plant to watch where all the waste is. I’m not familiar with celery as a crop, so I’d check to see how much waste there is, what’s thrown away.
BPGL: Why did you choose to make paper out of bananas?
JOHANSING: When we choose a fiber, we look at how much harm it does to the environment, and how much effect we can have by using some of that waste to make paper. Every agricultural process leaves a byproduct, and it’s different for each crop.
Banana is the number one eaten fruit in the world; it’s grown almost everywhere. There’s a tremendous amount of waste in the banana industry. It’s natural waste; it’s how the banana tree grows. The banana tree has a thick stalk, and the bunches of bananas hang on another long piece of stalk, called the pinzote. Each year, more than 10 million metric tons of pinzote is thrown in landfills or in local rivers. There’s so much pinzote that they can’t put it back in the field. It’s a huge environmental problem. I couldn’t even guess about the total world-wide waste from the banana industry.
BPGL: Is there as much waste with the other agricultural byproducts you use?
JOHANSING: With the other fibers we choose, we end up doing something to help the environment; but on the grander scale, it’s not nearly as much impact as bananas. We’re removing hundreds of thousands of tons of waste by making banana paper. With our coffee paper, we’re removing 20 or 30 tons annually.
BPGL: Your product labels say that you use “post-consumer waste.” Does that mean your products are like other products that are made from “recycled paper”?
JOHANSING: If you speak to a paper mill representative, they’ll tell you that the label “recycled paper” means nothing. Let me give you an example: In the paper mill, at times they’ll create a larger sheet of virgin pulp than they need. Say they cut a stack of 11 x 17-inch sheets of new paper in half. One half of the stack is 8 ½ by 11-inch sheets that they put in reams and sell as new product. The other half, also 8 ½ x 11-inch sheets of virgin paper, is now excess. It might go back in the mill in rerun, or it might be used in another paper product and be labeled “recycled” without ever hitting a consumer process. The label “recycled paper” can be very misleading to consumers.
At Costa Rica Natural, we use 100% post-consumer waste. This means it actually has already been used for another purpose — such as old financial records that have been shredded. The unique thing about the post-consumer waste we use is that most of it is the waste the other paper mills are unwilling to deal with. If we didn’t use it, it would end up in a landfill.”
BPGL: So, how do you take post-consumer waste and an agricultural product like banana stalks — pinzote — and turn it into paper?
JOHANSING: We have a small mobile pulping facility. We go to the plantations, where the waste is. Pinzote is wet; it’s comprised of 92 percent water. We use that water in our pulping process; we don’t use any new water. Then we return the water from the pinzote to the irrigation system.
We dry out the fibers, put them in something we call a “floor mat,” which is about 1 ½ feet thick by about 6 feet long. We stack those and send them to the paper mill. At the mill, we chop the floor mats into something that looks like pencil shavings. Then we mix the pinzote pieces with 100 % post-consumer paper and stir it all around in a big vat.
When you look at our paper, you’ll see the long fibers of the banana. We don’t use any chemicals in our process whatever. We maintain the consistency of our color by how we select the post consumer waste and by the banana fiber used. We only claim a minimum 5 percent banana fiber, but it can be up to 20 percent or more sometimes.
That can be translated into tons. We estimate that for every one ton of banana fiber we use, 17 trees are saved.
BPGL: That’s impressive. Could you make paper in other places, using different agricultural products?
JOHANSING: Yes, in fact, my vision is to have regional paper mills, everywhere around the globe, using raw materials that are available in each local area. In Iowa, you might make paper from corn byproducts; in Ireland maybe they’d use potato vines. People could even use yard waste.
Our resources are so abundant and we don’t even utilize them. You can take the cover from a cereal box and make a nice notebook out of it. Or make paper out of it. There are so many things we could actually reuse.
But, being a small company, I work on what I can do effectively now. We’re working out of three different facilities. My main converting plant is in Costa Rica. That’s where we do all the finished products.
BPGL: How did you end up making paper in Costa Rica?
JOHANSING: I started working at Kinko’s when I was just 19. I grew with Kinko’s, and we made gazillions of copies — and waste. In 1989, I went to Costa Rica to surf, and fell in love with the diverse ecological region. I never wanted to leave. Around 1990, I started thinking about the waste we were producing, and that was the beginning process of this company, seeking out new alternatives.
Pretty soon, I was living in Costa Rica, making colorful notepads to sell to tourists. I traveled around the country, trying to find fibers for the notepads, when I completely fell in love with the environment there.
BPGL: How much of the year do you spend in Costa Rica?
JOHANSING: A lot. I spend probably 60% of my time there. I have a home in Costa Rica and an apartment near our facility. The rest of the time, I’m in Ventura [California].
When I started the company, my desire was to move to Costa Rica. Eventually, I realized how blessed I am to have Ventura too.
BPGL: I understand you used to compete as a surfer. It must be like paradise for you to live on the coasts of both California and Costa Rica.
JOHANSING: Surfing was always my passion. I loved the idea, when I was 14, of living in a grass shack and surfing every day. Then I realized that grass shacks are really hard to come by. So I developed a career concept: If you can make your career revolve around what you love, and keep that first, everything else should fall into place.
All the most successful people I know are surfers. If you’re going to be a surfer, you have to manage your time. If you want to continue your sport, you have to have a career concept that supports your lifestyle. I’m happy with the choice I made to be an entrepreneur. I’m modest in my lifestyle, but I get to surf. Surfing is about how I see the environment.
I’ve seen people mess up paradise. There are people who live in places we’d be in awe of, and the problems they create for themselves are unbelievable.
I’ve been feeding the homeless in downtown Los Angeles for 18 years now. I always thought Skid Row was an address, then I realized that paradise is a state of mind. Wherever you are, you can decide to get up in the morning and say, “This is awesome.”
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