Making paper from stone: How these entrepreneurs are flipping an ancient process on its head

Karst Stone Paper co-founders

Karst Stone Paper co-founders Kevin Garcia and Jon Tse (left to right). Source: supplied.

Karst Stone Paper is saving leftover rubble from landfills and using it to make paper, upending the traditional pulp-paper industry with a more eco-friendly alternative.

After discovering a factory in Taiwan making waterproof and freezable paper packaging from stone, used to transport fish and other foodstuffs, co-founder and co-chief executive Jon Tse tells SmartCompany he and co-founder Kevin Garcia saw a commercial opportunity for the technology.

“For us, this was a fantastic, new and much more sustainable alternative to traditional pulp paper… even for A4 reams of printer paper.

“The carbon emissions of the end-to-end process is 67% less than producing traditional pulp paper,” Tse says.

Now into its third year of production, the Sydney business is still bootstrapped and relies on old-fashioned cold calling to grow its customer base and attract investors.

Barking up a different tree

Tse says the same properties that made the paper useful for transporting fresh and frozen foods — being waterproof and non-toxic — gives it a luxurious feel that consumers value.

“Not all stone paper is created equally,” he says.

Unlike pulp paper, would-be waste rubble from construction and mining sites need to be pulverised into chalk-like powder and mixed with resin before being rolled and stretched “thousands and thousands of times”, Tse explains.

He says the lengthy process is necessary to create a practical paper replacement, and it’s what makes the paper as bright and smooth as it is.

Despite additional steps along the production line, Tse says the entire process still only requires a fraction of the natural resources that traditional methods do.

For example, last year, Karst produced 40 metric tonnes of stone paper, and saved 720 trees in the process, Tse says.

“It saves something like 100,000 litres of water, almost 50,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, and almost 200,000 kilowatts of energy as well”, according to Tse.

New kids on the block

Stone paper is still a newcomer in the paper-making space, so Tse says the lack of research and experience available lengthened the development processes.

“We’re only three or four years old, and we’re probably one of the most experienced [stone] paper companies out there,” he says.

“Long story short, there are different glues that are required, different inks, and the stitching and binding processes are quite different.”

In fact, it took Tse and Garcia a year of iterating before they were able to launch their website and begin selling.

Because the duo is still bootstrapping the business, the stone paper is produced in Taiwan, but the co-founders hope to “one day” open a facility in Australia.

“It’s taken us a bit of time to figure out the right concoction and the right processes for that.

“Being bootstrapped, we’ve had to make trade-offs as to where we choose to allocate these resources,” Tse says.

Back to basics

Even with these resource challenges, Tse says Karst has “turned over in its millions” since its launch, enough to attract the attention of some investors.

However, in the absence of external funding, Tse has been relying on cold emails to generate publicity and attention.

“The challenge is picking and choosing where we think we’re going to get the most bang for our buck,” he says.

“There’s a lot of things that you can do that will only cost you time.”

Finding potential clients on tenant lists by the elevator in corporate offices, and then cold calling their sales team, for example, Tse has managed to take Karst global into 84 countries, with 70% of its sales being made in the US.

Much of Karst’s success has been found with corporates looking to go green or offer event-goers a unique gift, such as the likes of Facebook, WeWork and TED Talks.

Looking to expand this further, Tse and Garcia are now courting interested investors in an effort to expand their team and patent new products.

“They say it’s like a marriage,” Tse says.

“We want to pick the right partner.”

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