On the door to Carlos Gómez’s little shop in south-central San José is a brown, crumpled-looking sign with uneven letters, written in pen, in Spanish, with a rough drawing of a banana plant:
Stop the climate change!
Change yourself from consumer to protector of the environment
Use Banana Paper.
On the left side of the store, papel de banano in nearly every imaginable incarnation sits on gray, metal shelves: cards, booklets, pulpy-looking picture frames, banana-ink paintings on banana paper, little boxes, bags of paper and cloth, bookmarks, plastic three-ring binders covered in a decorative paste of… banana pulp.
“I haven’t achieved much success with these as of yet,” Gómez says, chuckling as he holds one of the binders, which he says he “recycled” from street garbage.
Sunlight comes through the open door and glass window; the narrow room is otherwise unlit. A quiet, dignified security guard stands at the ready, hands clasped. With his gray mustache and taped-together glasses, Gómez, 59, looks like your retired high school physics teacher, the crazy and inspired one who made you curious about the world.
The right side of the narrow room has the normal pulpería, or corner store, goods and snacks, sparsely resting on gray shelves. Gómez says his sales are 70% on this side, and 30% in homemade banana paper.
During one hour on a recent afternoon, Gómez had three clients: one sold the shopkeeper two bags of chips, then bought a carton of milk – on credit; the second walked silently up and down the banana paper aisle; and the third bought a couple of frozen treats and a bottle of Coca-Cola. The cash register is a set of boxes of coins under the glass counter.
From 1971, when he was a student at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), to 1985, Gómez worked for Scott Paper, where he engineered the company’s first “natural” toilet paper from banana pulp, he says. From 1978 to 1991, he advised UCR chemical engineering students in the school’s wood laboratory, and in 1991 he developed the world’s first banana paper factory, he says, in conjunction with EARTHUniversity, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope. In 1994 he worked with a German man to build another banana paper plant, also on the Caribbean slope.
In 2000, he started building another plant, five times bigger than the first, in Rosario de Naranjo, Alajuela, northwest of San José.
Gómez opens a three-ring binder (not covered in banana paper) and shows diagrams and photos of grinders, turbines, chutes and the like, in the countryside, under a sheet-metal roof.
So – why banana paper?
Gómez pulls out a yellow accounting pad and starts making diagrams of the sun and the earth, of solar energy and chlorophyll, of cellular matter and plant sugars, starches and alcohols.
After 10 minutes: “… Among all this cellulose, we selected the banana plant,” he says, switching to drawings of banana trunks, leaves, flowers and fruit.
From one banana plant, you can produce two cardboard boxes, a bunch of fruit, and all the starches and sugars needed for ink to print on the boxes, as well as insecticides, fungicides and stomach medicines, Gómez says.
Bananas are great – you can put a guy in a box for seven months, he says, let him eat nothing but bananas, pull him out and he’d weigh the same as when he started.
What would happen in eight months?
“Boy, he’d sure be sick of bananas!” Gómez laughs.
His Alajuela factory is called Papelera Santa Rosa, which is the same red-and-black name in the window of his San José shop. The Costa Rica-Netherlands foundation Fundecooperación put up half the money to buy the land and build the plant, Gómez says. He and a local agricultural cooperative, Coopeagrona, secured the rest. The plant is ready to process 450 metric tons of banana tree waste yearly, Gómez says; it would sell some pulp for paper and boxes and press some into sheets of hardboard “wood” products.
Hardboard is the material of pegboards and fiber boards sometimes used in the back of cabinets – “the entire Amazon basin is converting itself into this type of material,” Gómez says, tapping the back of a display cabinet. Making wood products from banana plants would save forests, and eliminate Costa Rica’s banana waste, which, he says, now ends up poisoning fish in the Caribbean Sea. Hence, the sign on his door.
Unfortunately, Gómez says, Papelera Santa Rosa and company can’t afford electricity to run the seven-level, 1,000-squaremeter plant, and hasn’t found a bank or private investor that would give them a loan.
Gómez and his family live off his shop’s meager proceeds, he says, which also go toward payments for his part of the plant’s property and construction.
“It’s all or nothing,” Gómez says of his future in banana pulp – in the 16-year pursuit of his experiments, he says he fell behind in payments to his retirement pension. He’s holding out for a wealthier partner, or a friendlier bank. Meanwhile, he sells chips, soda and the occasional piece of homemade paper on Avenida 8 near Calle 13 – in what he calls a “non-tourist” section of town.
“This is a pulpería-laboratory,” he says. The back rooms are piled with… well, it looks like garbage, but it is sacks of banana pulp, piles of cardboard, a pressure cooker with green, fibrous matter on a filthy stove, a giant blender caked with dried pulp, a giant press that employs a hydraulic car jack, and dried paper propped here and there on rusty screens.
In the front of his shop, amid the crafts and papers, are dozens of old magazines and dusty books, mostly textbooks.
“Some people think the Internet is the mother of Tarzan,” Gómez says, explaining how students have given him books they think they won’t need. Nevertheless, if the books don’t sell, they’re “condemned” to be recycled, i.e., put through the blenders and boilers and presses of the back-room laboratory to emerge in another manifestation of paper or pulp.
Whether or not Gómez can get the region’s biggest banana fiber processing plant up and running, one thing is certain: his is one of San José’s most fascinating pulperías.