Michael Nilan has never been one to overlook a great idea. In 2010, while on a business trip to China, the entrepreneur stumbled across a plant that produced paper without using a single tree. Inspired, Nilan shuttered his old business, which outsourced jobs for American companies like Tropicana and Westinghouse, and cofounded Atlanta-based TreeZero, which produces and distributes tree-free paper to both consumers and organizations. Its customers include Aflac and the CDC.
After discovering quality-control issues at the China plant, Nilan and his partner Ed Kennedy located another mill in South America, but its formula included 5 percent pine—a problem for a company already incorporated as TreeZero. No matter: The pair worked with engineers to eliminate pine from the equation before signing an exclusive contract with the mill.
TreeZero makes high-quality paper from a sugarcane-processing byproduct that is typically dumped in a landfill or incinerated. The production process is not just ecofriendly—it actually helps the environment.
The paper industry, including local giant Georgia-Pacific, has long presented recycled paper as ecofriendly. But according to Nilan, TreeZero performs better—leaving less dust in printers and absorbing ink crisply—because it has never been remanufactured.
This article originally appeared in our November 2014 issue under the headline “Sweet!”