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By Kevin Deane

SAN LUIS, Costa Rica — Even old, dirty paper can be beautiful.

It all started in 2001 as a gift from the Japanese Embassy in an effort to plant bamboo and display its uses. Supported by the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Eco-Bambú formed and went to work.

During its early years of operation, the group of close to 15 focused around the bamboo, but something was missing. A university professor came down and showed the organization how to make paper and furniture. The group then decided it was the best decision to drop the bamboo and focus on paper.

“We were making paper, but it wasn’t for everyone, so we were left with only a few members,” Eco-Bambú President Yadira Ramírez Brenes said. “We went from many members to only three.”

The much smaller group began to focus on recycling and making only natural products. The first major client for the organization was the Centro Científico Tropical (Tropical Science Center), which wanted to get rid of all its plastic bags. The CCT thought recycled paper bags were a great alternative. They turned to Eco-Bambú, which was happy to provide them.

Still, the organization made little money and needed to face other challenges. It was working in an old milking barn, which was in terrible condition. Water from the constant precipitation in its tropical location made the leaky roofs difficult to work under — and nearly impossible for the paper to dry. A visit from an admiring biologist from the reserve was the first step toward getting a new workspace. He said they should get in contact with a representative from the Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo as soon as possible to see what he could do for them.

Impressed with the product, the representative from PNUD made the trip, and encouraged Eco-Bambú to quickly get a formal, written proposal to the grant office as soon as possible. The grant office responded with an 8-million-colón (or roughly $31,100) award, specifically for its work with environmental and social progress. There was another problem, however. The grant would only be given if Eco-Bambú could obtain a piece of land that was in the name of the organization.

Enter the reserve again. Eco-Bambú struck a deal with the conservation park. In return for lending Eco-Bambú the money to purchase the land for the new headquarters, the group would give it a monthly allotment of paper bags until the debt was paid off. It took only two years.

Eco-Bambú prides itself on its creativity. Anyone can make paper with the right tools, but very few can do what they do. They use different natural fibers to mix with the paper to form different colors and textures.

“We don’t use chemicals or anything because it would make our paper less natural,” Ramírez Brenes said. “We use different fibers like grass, dried leaves, flowers, from plantain and coconut trees, achiote, and guacamaya.”

They also separate the recycled paper by color to help influence the colors of the new paper. Each fiber also forms a different color. For instance, grass gives a green color and guacamaya a yellow color. But not just anything found in nature will work for new paper.

“We once tried to cook a blue flower to use,” Ramírez Brenes said. “The smell was very bad and we couldn’t use it. When that happens we just say, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ We try to always stay natural.”

The paper doesn’t appear just from good intentions and creativity, though. First, the old paper gets torn into little pieces and must sit in water for at least two days to make sure it is saturated enough to manipulate. From the tubs of water, the paper is placed into a blender that cuts it into smaller pieces. Next, the paper “pulp” is put into a bath of water where it gets scooped up by a wooden mold. The mesh screen under the mold allows the excess water to drain.

The rectangular mold of paper is placed onto a layer of thick material. The process is repeated until a stack is nearly a foot to two feet high, and put into a press where the rest of the water is drained. The paper is set out to dry in various places around the building, including tables, the walls and open areas on platforms near the roof.

The group is now a family co-op with seven members including some neighbors. It makes several different products, such as paper, notebooks, bookmarks and more to sell.

Eco-Bambú might not be in debt anymore, but that doesn’t mean the money is growing on trees for this small group.

“The recession hit us hard,” Ramírez Brenes said. “But we like what we do and that’s why we maintain the project.”

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