An American with a Chinese Printing Company Who Makes Stone Paper
My name is Hunter Bliss and I’m from South Carolina. I run a small, innovative printing business based in Shenzhen, China, called Pebble Printing Group. We specialize in radical sustainability, with an emphasis on paper made from stone. As a new blogger, I would like to share a little bit of my story, the story of my company, and the future toward which I am working in sustainable printing.
I was born and raised in Lexington, S.C. I grew up playing golf and being a normal kid for the most part. My mom instilled in me a very strong work ethic that I still have today. When I was 18, I moved to Germany to study physics at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) to follow in the footsteps of my favorite scientist, Nikola Tesla. At the time, German schools had no tuition, so it was a huge attraction for an American student.
Around the second year of that endeavor, I realized I didn’t like physics at all. I left the TUM and started working as a travel photographer for a software startup in Munich called Parkpocket. They hired me to travel around a number of German cities every week, photographing parking spaces and garages. After doing this job for a while, I got pretty good at photography and videography. The skills I learned there even led to me doing stock photography professionally.
The owner noticed my skills and told me I should look into further education at the Stuttgart Hochschule der Medien (HdM,) before they came up with the English name “Stuttgart University of Media." They are a proud, somewhat famous, German community college that specializes in, you guessed it, media. They have all sorts of film studios and resources for budding media professionals. I thought it was a great fit for me, so I checked out their available programs.
During that search, I stumbled upon the program “German-Chinese Printing and Media Technologies.” At that point, I felt like I had learned a lot living in Germany, and I thought I could learn even more by going to a country that tested me harder. So, based on the desire to learn Chinese, I chose this program and was accepted. Little did I know that not only would I enjoy learning Chinese, but I would fall in love with printing.
During my ~3 years at the Hochschule der Medien, I came to intimately understand the printing industry. I am still privileged to have the perspective from the HdM that I think a lot of line workers or even legacy owners never see in print. Digital printing, offset, gravure, flexo, postpress, packaging, publishing — I got to put my hands on all of the leading machinery and methods that drive all of the trends in the global printing world. For the students there, we basically lived and breathed the highest level of printing and management under one roof together.
Along with very intensive Chinese language courses, I absolutely loved it. The third year in that program was my first visit to China, where we studied at the Xi’an Technical University (西安理工大学) in its printing and packaging faculty. During that time I did an internship at a flexible packaging company called Lamipak in another city called Suzhou. I was honestly blown away by the Chinese world and printing industry over that year.
I was recruited by RR Donnelley (RRD) China at the Xi’an campus, which asked me to go work for them in Shenzhen once I finished my studies in Germany. I began my final semester as an intern at RRD Shenzhen, writing my thesis about opening a Chinese printing business. In true ironic fashion, I actually presented my final bachelor thesis at Appalachian State University, a sister school of the school in Stuttgart. The final day of my printing degree took place with an American professor and my German professor on a video call in Boone, N.C., just a short drive away from home.
After my thesis was handed in and I began waiting for my German and Chinese degrees, I went back to Shenzhen to begin working in the business development department of RRD Shenzhen. It was a very nice office and I wore nice clothes to work every day. It felt like I was working at Google. But this is because the Shenzhen office is a pony show for the laborious, incredible printing work that RR Donnelley does in smaller cities where wages are most competitive. For example, all of the printing machines in Shenzhen were moved to a city north of Shenzhen, called Dongguan. The office in Shenzhen has a daily shuttle to Dongguan to deliver dummies and printing samples.
I happily hitched a ride on that little van twice a week to visit the factory in Dongguan, where it felt like I was walking on an aircraft carrier full of printing machines. I have never seen anything remotely close to the scale of the Dongguan operations in Germany or the U.S. I don’t even know if such a scale makes business sense in America any more.
In the period between graduating, waiting for my degrees, and enthusiastically exploring Dongguan, I made a discovery that would determine my path now. Scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, I noticed that my colleague posted an article about a material called stone paper. It was advertised as a sustainable alternative to traditional paper.
With my German background in paper material science, I was fascinated by the idea. They were making claims that it is completely tree- and water-free, while producing 70% less emissions than traditional paper. The only catch was that it uses a small amount of polyethylene (plastic) as a binding material for the stone powder. To make the decision on whether or not this material was worth my commitment, I began voluntarily writing a second thesis: a sustainability analysis of stone paper over traditional paper in Europe. While I was writing it, I even secured RR Donnelley’s first stone paper project with my current client from Germany.
That’s when things started to go south with RRD. Despite their optimism with me as their only foreign staff member, they were not willing to support me once it was time to switch my visa from an intern visa to a work visa. My degrees were being delayed, and I was not worth the risk. This is understandable behavior from a big company, for whom it is better to be on the defense rather than the offense. I was let go from RR Donnelley immediately.
At around the same time, I finally finished my 33-page sustainability thesis on stone paper in the European market. I concluded that stone paper could save a huge amount of resources, including fossil fuels, compared to traditional paper if it replaced all graphic papers in Europe. It was obviously worth my commitment. That’s when I decided to start my own printing business to save my residence in Shenzhen and develop stone paper.
I don’t remember how I met my current partner in stone paper. I just know that we struggled a lot to get my current working visa. My current partner owns a small stone paper warehouse in Shenzhen. Shortly after we met, with an incredible visa agent on my side, she said we could make it work. She told me she couldn’t pay me any money because she wasn’t making enough herself, but she could offer her company’s name with immigration to get me a working visa. Then, there was a two-month period between my visa expiry and receiving my final Chinese bachelor’s degree. Due to the virus, the Chinese government miraculously decided to extend foreigners’ visas for two months during that period, allowing us enough time to get my degree and update my visa.
That was pretty much the start of the Pebble Printing Group. Once my visa was updated, I was ready to go with a stone paper supplier. All I needed were printing orders, which meant marketing and better understanding stone paper. Like a true marketing-focused American, I ran innovative direct mail campaigns from my apartment. I invented a way to print on waterproof stone paper using a water-based inkjet printer, a microwave, and spray paint.
I hand folded all of my materials and got stone paper in the hands of almost every publisher in New Zealand for less than $300 USD from Shenzhen. My first client came from that campaign, and we have printed two orders of stone paper novels with her. From her orders and the orders of my first German client, I was able to survive at the beginning. Luckily, living costs in China are not too high.
I will summarize the last 16 months of development since then. It has been a rollercoaster, but I’m glad to say in an upward direction. I found two investors who ultimately betrayed me, but I made sizable waves in Europe and Australia. In Germany I garnered the attention of nearly a dozen of the largest publishers in the country and made it to their largest publishing magazine. My main business comes from Germany now.
I won second place in the Otto Krahn Innovation Challenge, a competition hosted by a large plastics producer based in Hamburg looking for solutions for the circular economy. There I presented a plan for Europe’s first and the world’s most circular stone paper factory. In the UK I printed the first children’s book on stone paper. While that requires special printing practice, children’s books are the outstanding application for stone paper! I am enamored by the beauty of stone paper children’s books, being sustainable, waterproof, non-toxic, tear-resistant, and not causing paper cuts. In Australia we’re now working on a few publishing projects in this area.
I also invented a way to use landfilled plastics to bind books. The printing products we produce, after 16 months, are nearly enough to afford my life completely in Shenzhen. Next year, I think our printing work will require an account executive to join, which is good news.
However, above all printing opportunities, there appears to be a chance for explosive growth in the raw material itself. Only a few months ago, my networking and diligence in China gave me the opportunity to meet the owner of China’s most innovative stone paper machinery developer. I was able to sign a contract with him to receive a small survival investment and represent him abroad.
Now there are a number of opportunities in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia where we could build stone paper factories and beat the price of traditional paper. After all, one thing I learned while working so intensely on stone paper — the 80% component of calcium carbonate costs only a few dollars per ton compared to the $800+ for wood pulp. Our only obstacle is the price of polyethylene, which makes up 20% of our material. By being clever, it seems like we can make serious leaps in printing and paper, and Pebble may have the chance to become a worldwide leader in both paper and plastic.
That’s where we stand now. Me working from my apartment after 16 months, churning out beautiful stone paper printing products, and chiseling away at stone paper machinery projects. Now I’ve received the honorable invitation to contribute to Printing Impressions. I look forward to posting my discoveries about sustainability and printing.
In an industry with such a long legacy, I think we are just getting started. The next revolution in printing is a revolution in sustainability.
Hunter Bliss is the founder and CEO of Pebble Printing Group, a printer specializing in sustainable innovation. Pebble Printing Group is a leading innovator in stone paper material, as well other circular solutions for traditional publishing and packaging print. Hunter is from South Carolina, was educated as a printer in Germany, and founded his company in Shenzhen, China.