Photo: Re-Leaf

The idea is to turn fallen leaves into paper and paper bags, which can replace plastic. Re-Leaf is already selling to several countries, and the goal is to revolutionize the paper business and make everything more sustainable. 

Valentine Frechka was still attending secondary school when he got an idea to revolutionize the paper business. He was looking to prevent the felling of the Carpathian forests. Maybe, he thought to himself; it would be possible to use fallen leaves for something good? The idea soon turned into a project with help from his teacher, and Frechka created a study to obtain cellulose from fallen leaves for paper production. 

Frechka’s project soon won competitions in Ukraine and abroad, where he competed in competitions in Denmark, Tunisia, Serbia, Kenya, the USA, and South Korea. In Denmark, he came second in the category ‘environmental’ in the University World Startup Cup 2019. They were impressed by Frechka’s techniques which could produce paper from fallen leaves with a good enough quality to write on, and it could be used in a printer. 

“I just wanted to do something great. People already made paper from wheat straw, and I wanted to do something else,” says 20-year-old Frechka to Ukrainenu about his company Re-Leaf, “I soon had the product, but I did not know what to do with it from here.”

That leads us to May 2019, when Andriy Vartsaba, a Ukrainian businessman and mentor, enters the equation. He had noticed Frechka’s project and wanted to take it to the next step. From simply an idea to a business. Something which could be sold worldwide. 

“We have a chance here to produce something new which did not exist. To develop it and put it in other countries, where local governments can develop on our model and see that they can use fallen leaves for something,” says Vartsaba.

Andriy Vartsaba, left, and Valentine Frechka, right. Photo: Stefan Weichert

Can compete on price

Frechka says that their production is divided into three stages. Firstly, they need to collect fallen leaves, secondly a process to obtain cellulose, which then leads to step three, where cellulose is used to produce paper. Re-Leaf doesn’t have its own production yet but cooperates with existing paper mills in Ukraine to make their sustainable paper. 

“We have stupid logistics at this point, driving around with our project to different paper mills in Ukraine before we have the finished project,” says Vartsaba, “However, we hope to have our own production in about a year, and then everything will change.”

Photo: Re-Leaf
Photo: Re-Leaf

500 pieces of standard office paper cost around 100 to 150 hryvnia, or about 3.5 to 5.5 dollars. 500 pieces of Re-Leads paper cost 200 hryvnia or 7.3 dollars, but the company says they are still experiencing considerable interest. Vartsaba says that Re-Leaf is negotiating with several large Ukrainian companies about providing paper and paper bags because of the need to move away from plastic. At the moment, Re-Leaf can’t follow the demand, which is also starting to come from abroad. 

Paper and a paper bag produced by Re-Leaf. Photo: Stefan Weichert

“We also expect that our product will have the same price as normal paper when we get our own production. If everything is done right, we can even be cheaper because we don’t need to pay for our product – the fallen leaves,” says Frechka, referring to how trees are used in the average production of paper and paper bags. 

“Even with the price that we have now, we are experiencing big demand. People want something different. They want to be more sustainable,” adds Vartsaba.

Re-Leaf is currently cooperating with municipalities that deliver fallen leaves for free to them. Municipalities would generally need to collect, transport, and dispose of fallen leaves when collected from parks and public areas. Re-Leaf offers to take care of the last part so that the municipalities would not need to use the money disposing of the leaves. 

“We can do the last part free of charge, which is very attractive for the municipalities,” says Vartsaba, referring to how Kyiv alone produces 200.000 tons of fallen leaves per year. 

Re-Leaf needs around 2.3 tons of fallen leaves to produce one ton of paper, while it takes 17 to 24 trees to make one ton of standard office paper. Re-Leaf can produce all year as fallen leaves can be stored and used gradually to fit demand. 

What the future will hold

Re-Leaf is still looking for the last investors to start their own production, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology is helping with the last approvals and certificates. In the beginning, Re-Leaf believed that their primary customer would be anyone, but they have discovered that many people are less interested in costs and more in sustainability. 

“We want to create a product, which can make people closer to nature, wherever you are  – in a hotel, in a restaurant, or shopping,” says Frechka, who is now studying a bachelor at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, “Our paper bag is great for that.”

“Many people like our product because they have a feeling about it,” adds Vartsaba, “It is a decision. A way to solve your need to be close to nature. We don’t sell paper bags; we sell the feeling of being close to nature.” 

The next step for the company will be to start its own production. They are thinking of starting in either Lviv or Kyiv and will require three hectares with production, officers, and so forth. They hope to handle 20.000 tons of fallen leaves the first year, but the dream is to become much bigger and produce for the market abroad. 

“There is a growing demand for paper, and the world needs to find an alternative for plastic. Everyone needs packaging material,” says Frechka, “I think that we are at the right time at the right place. We want to contribute to responsible thinking.”