VENTURA, Calif. - For 15 years, people have sniffed the tree-free paper products made by EcoPaper Inc. to see if they smell like the bananas they're made from.
"People ask all the time," said CEO Harry Johansing, and he assures them that they do not smell.
It's an understandable curiosity, considering that the reams, notebooks, journals, stationery and other products on the menu at the Ventura company are made with a mixture of postconsumer waste and the fibrous waste of bananas and other agricultural products, including lemons and sugar cane.
EcoPaper was organized in 1995, about six years after Johansing went to Costa Rica to surf and hunt for fibers to make colorful paper-pad souvenirs.
"They were dumping all these bananas in rivers and it was fibrous enough to make paper from," he said.
He and partner Ian Ratowsky mixed the agricultural waste with postconsumer waste -- recycled trash -- to make paper, and kept working to improve their methods. Eventually realizing there was a market for tree-free paper, EcoPaper was born.
In 2000, Johansing moved the company to Ventura. He had owned Kinko's stores before establishing EcoPaper, so he knew Ventura well since it's where Kinko's was once headquartered.
"My stores were in Los Angeles and we had to check in quite often," he said.
Johansing said they work only with vendors who permit unannounced visits, so that he and Ratowsky can check working conditions and ensure that employees are being treated fairly.
According to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, tree-free papers are gaining attention as calls grow to preserve forests and reduce pollution from virgin-wood-pulp production. Plants used to make tree-free paper regrow rapidly and their harvesting doesn't disrupt the natural ecosystems, according to the department.
"There's very good evidence that there's a potential for decreased environmental impact," said Robert Carlson, an integrated management specialist with the department.
Johansing hopes tree-free paper is not a fad the public turns away from.
It's a goal of EcoPaper to make clear that the company does not believe sustainability should be a luxury.
"Everybody should be able to afford to buy green," Johansing said.
To reach that end, the company reduces prices when it finds savings, said Chief Operating Officer Aaron Schiff.
"We keep decreasing our prices the cheaper it gets for us," he said. "We don't say, 'Great, more profit'; we pass that savings to our consumer."
Last year, to raise more capital and with an eye on going public, the company acquired a public shell company, SGD Holdings Ltd., which had filed for bankruptcy, and EcoPaper did a reverse merger with it. The move would save EcoPaper the 18 to 24 months it would take to make an initial public offering, Johansing said. There is no relationship between the prior owners of SGD Holdings and EcoPaper, and Johansing said they will be changing the name.
Another reason for the restructuring had to do with Johansing's health. He said he suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory disease that causes pain and inflammation of the joints.
"I said I created this company and we did a lot of good things, and if something was to happen to me, this would just go away," he said. "And I looked at how can I keep this going."