Paper manufacturing consumes a lot of energy, wood and water. Entrepreneur Uwe D’Agnone went in search of a more sustainable alternative. The grass paper he developed also convinced the jury of the KfW Entrepreneurs' Award 2017. The Creapaper company was awarded the title of National Winner.
From the idea to the product – the founder explains his start-up (KfW Group/n-tv). This video is only avaiable in German.
Uwe D’Agnone brings a sheet of paper with him to the conference table. The paper is quite thick and wavy, and you can see small green specks in it. It all started with this sheet of paper, created on a traditional paper sieve. It was the first attempt at turning an idea into a new product. It was the first piece of grass paper the businessman made together with a paper maker from Rheinbach. That was six years ago now. Mr D’Agnone keeps this sheet of paper like a treasure in his office in Hennef's industrial district, about 20 kilometres from Bonn.
"I enjoy setting tasks for myself. I'm a tinkerer," says the 53-year-old. He is wearing jeans and has rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. Uwe D’Agnone trained as an industrial management assistant at a printing plant with sites in Mönchengladbach and Dusseldorf. In 1990 he opened his own business in Hennef. His company is called Creapaper and 15 full-time employees work there. Mr D’Agnone produces advertising materials made of seeds and biodegradable paper for clients like the DM chain of chemist's shops, food producer Danone, or the Greenpeace environmental protection organisation. For example, the "herb garden": basil, thyme, cress and Thai basil grow from a simple cardboard box – it doesn't even need to be planted in a pot or a garden bed. The products Mr D’Agnone developed and markets are stacked on the shelf behind him. The so-called grass paper is expected to become the second mainstay of his business in future. The entrepreneur wants to establish a more sustainable alternative to paper made from wood.
Not so long ago, people prophesied that paper would disappear. E-books and tablets were taking over the world and buzzwords like "paperless office" were making the rounds. And sure enough, noticeably less paper is being used today to print magazines, newspapers or books. Nevertheless, per-capita consumption has been strongly increasing for years. This is primarily due to the boom in online business. All the products purchased in large numbers on the Internet also have to be packaged, of course. More than five million packages are shipped every day in Germany. So paper and cardboard will be needed for a long time to come.
But Uwe D’Agnone wasn't only interested in maintaining the supply of traditional paper. "A few years ago, I read an article about how forest areas as large as Switzerland are cleared every year in countries like Indonesia. My thought was that someone has to do something about this," he says. The businessman has been working with paper for many years. So he started experimenting to see what raw materials could be used for manufacturing instead of wood – and after a few attempts with diverse fibres, he ended up with grass or, more specifically, hay.
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Uwe D’Agnone, an entrepreneur from Hennef in North Rhine-Westphalia, wants to shake up the paper market – with grass paper.
After the initial attempts with the paper maker from Rheinbach, Mr D’Agnone found a paper factory in the Eifel region that agreed to use one of their machines to test manufacturing paper that was mostly made of grass. The result satisfied the entrepreneur and spurred him on to further experiments. With the foundation Papiertechnische Stiftung in Heidenau, he tested diverse formulas for his grass paper. Which fibre is suitable for different types of paper? How high can the proportion of grass be? How much wood does it still need to contain? He got in touch with the University of Bonn and arranged a cooperation with the scientists from the department of renewable raw materials research in the agricultural faculty. The German Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt) funded the project. Martin Höller, a young researcher from Bonn, focused on the development of grass paper in his degree thesis.
Hay must first be dried and milled before it can really become paper. Afterwards it is processed into pellets – this also makes it easier to transport. A company from the Münsterland region has been doing this for Creapaper up to now. Next spring, Uwe D’Agnone wants to put his first own system for producing pellets into operation, near Stuttgart on the premises of the paper factory Papierfabrik Scheufelen. The hay in pellet form looks similar to animal feed. At the paper factory, the pellets are dissolved in water and can then be processed further. Mr D’Agnone says that his grass paper can probably be used for 90 per cent or more of all typical paper products today. Only transparent paper cannot be produced this way. The proportion of grass fibres in the cardboard he is currently producing is approximately 50 per cent. The rest is recycled paper or fresh fibre from wood. "But I assume that 65 per cent grass is doable," he declares.
KfW Entrepreneurs' Award
16 regional winners as well as one national winner were presented the KfW Entrepreneurs' Award in October 2017 for their business ideas. An overview of all winners and more information on the competition are available here.Learn more
What makes his product the better paper? The entrepreneur claims that "approximately 75 per cent of CO2 emissions are saved, compared to traditional paper. The ecological footprint is much better." Uwe D’Agnone proudly lists the advantages of his grass paper. Only two litres of water are used in the process of manufacturing one metric tonne of his pellets. If one were to produce one tonne of pulp from wood, which is necessary for paper production, then about 6000 litres of water would be required. Comparing the energy footprints yields similar results: producing one tonne of wood pulp consumes around 6000 kilowatts of electricity; the same amount of grass pellets can be made with 137 kilowatts. And chemical additives are not necessary for pellet manufacturing – this is not the case when producing pulp from wood. Furthermore, the transport routes are often very long for wood, which is used in the paper factories as processed pulp. In contrast, Uwe D’Agnone wants to produce his pellets as close to the factories as possible. In future, his goal is to process hay for his grass paper within 50 kilometres of the respective factory.
In the beginning it was hard for the entrepreneur to convince paper producers to process his grass pellets. The operators were very worried that the grass could damage their equipment. The cooperation with Otto Versand was what made Mr D’Agnone's first major contract possible. He was to manufacture shoe boxes for the mail-order company. With the lucrative order behind him, he was able to win over a paper manufacturer as a partner. Today, a total of eleven paper factories cooperate with Creapaper. They are located not only in Germany, but also in the Netherlands and Italy. Mr D’Agnone recently started working with the Rewe supermarket chain. Creapaper manufactures the cartons the group uses to sell its organic apples. The businessman also wants to expand internationally with his grass paper. He hopes it will already start to turn a profit within the next year.
"I have the opportunity to really set something in motion with my grass paper."
In any case, he has received ample recognition for his project, which is expected to make paper production more sustainable: in November 2016 the company was presented the Start Green Award 2016 in the Start-ups category at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety in Berlin. For the KfW Entrepreneurs' Award 2017 corporate competition, Creapaper was first selected as the state winner for North Rhine-Westphalia and subsequently also received the award as the national winner of the KfW Entrepreneurs' Award 2017 in Berlin.
With an eye on growth curves in the area of packaging, Uwe D’Agnone also sees his search for more environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional paper made from wood as his life's mission. "I have the opportunity to really set something in motion with my grass paper," he says.
Published on KfW Stories: Friday, 13 October 2017