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How eco-friendly are leaf plates?

Ina Rotter
January 20, 2017

We had a huge response to our video about leaf plates. Many wondered about the carbon footprint of biodegradable plates made in India to use in Germany. We asked Claudio Fritz-Vietta, co-founder of Leef, to explain.

Indien - Leef Blattwerk - Claudio Fritz-Vietta
Image: Leef

DW: A lot of our viewers questioned the logic of shipping leaves from India to serve food in Europe. Have you looked into the possibility of using leaves grown closer to home?

Claudio Fritz-Vietta: For our products, I was drawn from the beginning to India, where they already manufacture products out of these leaves. Once I saw this technique – which is an ancient technique there – I was of course looking at whether there would be any way of producing anything locally, with local leaves in Europe. And unfortunately there is not really any kind of leaf that even comes close to the properties we need.

If you look at the plate, which is nothing more than a single leaf, the leaves are from the areca palm tree that is actually grown for nuts. These nuts are grown on old plantations so there is no forest to be cleared – which is important to say these days – and the leaves are burned in big piles. So they are waste in the first place. And they are just so sturdy, like no leaf in Europe. Almost like wood. When we get them from farmers they are already quite sturdy so we soak them and wash them in a closed-water cycle and then just put the leather-like leaf into a steam press and it press the leaf into the shape we want.

Leef's leaf plates
Leef's biodegradable plates made from recycled areca palm leaves in IndiaImage: Leef

So what is the carbon footprint these leaves leave behind on their trip from India?

The carbon footprint is limited. The ships they are transported on are quite efficient. In our case, it is for a lot of 150,000 plates, which would mean a full container of plastic waste that goes on some landfill in Europe. In order to avoid that, we have the equivalent of truck ride from central Italy to central Germany.

We are confronted with this quite often and I am happy people are critical because it's necessary in our time. On the other hand, it is not always easy to measure. Any product we buy nowadays – even a yogurt pot, or any paper or plastic plate – makes a much, much longer journey, either imported from China, which is double the distance, or even within Germany, it travels on the road quite a lot. Nobody ever asks how big the carbon footprint of these products is.

Nevertheless we are a “bio” company and we have to live up to this standard. We try to make amends. We buy rainforest for each plate we sell  together with the World Land Trust – parcels of rainforest that are on the market to be chopped down. This is our way of making amends because I do share the concerns that this is a bit of a dark spot in the supply chain.

Infografik Karte CO2 Verbrauch Vergleich englisch

We do try hard to have as low a carbon footprint as we can. But within the economic system we live in, there is not much more we can do as a start-up. For example, we really worked hard to find sustainable packaging but there is no sustainable sticky tape so we have to use a regular tape, even though I don’t like it.

How big a factor are your costs?

As a start-up you have to be profitable from a certain point on, and the market is tough. Consumers are only willing to pay a certain amount for a sustainable product and we need to be aware of this and work within this frame, otherwise everything keeps going with plastic plates, which are even worse.

Indien - Leef Blattwerk
Leef's production takes places in small clusters, so the women they employ can work close to their familiesImage: Leef

So in order to make this first shift towards a society where we use reusable products, or products that are easily compostable, we have to use techniques like the leaf technique, that is a local Indian technique. This is an ancient tradition, made in India by Indian people. It's a great opportunity for development there, because if you look at the region where we produce for example, this is a region really violated by the textile and garment industry – they literally dyed all the rivers there – and we now offer them job opportunities and whole career opportunities to build a business on a sustainable business concept. And especially in India, this is very highly valued because they have a very a strong sense for nature.

So how does your production in India work?

As a Western company that’s producing in a less developed country like India there is always a question over how you do that. Economics tells us you have to be in control of all the intellectual property and production chain and everything. We deliberately took a different approach because we do want to develop local structures and not have simply a production line producing for us and basically enslaving people. We work with independent contractors that we support, we build their warehouses, help them with machinery.

Indien - Leef Blattwerk Grüner Marcel Frank und Claudio Fritz-Vietta
Leef's founders Grüner Marcel Frank und Claudio Fritz-Vietta at a production cluster in Tamil NaduImage: Leef

We really want to support local structures. We went a step further and said that we do not want to set up a big production facility, that we would rather produce in small clusters scattered around the region so the women we employ can work close to their families, and actually have a lower carbon footprint because they don’t need to travel, as often in India one or two hours overland in the morning, and create nice working places. A sustainable product is not only the product but the whole supply chain and the structure around it. If these things are sustainable too, only then can you really talk about a sustainable product.

Claudio Fritz-Vietta is co-founder of Leef, based in Berlin. The Interview was conducted by Ina Rotter.