Eco-Products Is on a Mission to Prove ‘Sustainable Disposables’ Can Exist

The Company, Which Sells Compostable Products, Is Reducing Waste While Growing Rapidly

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There’s a good chance that sometime this week you carried a tray covered with the detritus of casual dining toward a group of trash cans and recycling receptacles, confronting one of the more prosaic dilemmas of modern life.

What do I do with this stuff?

Faced with this what-goes-where puzzler, you may have, in fact, gone with an easier option — a furtive dump of every cup, plate, fork and bottle into the same can.

Is it possible for responsible trash disposal to be simpler?

Prime Time for Sustainable Disposables

Eco-Products CEO Ian Jacobson

Eco-Products CEO Ian Jacobson

Answering that question is at the core of Eco-Products’ mission. Since 1990, the Boulder, Colorado, company has focused on making disposable products compostable by creating them from corn, for instance, instead of petroleum.

The ultimate goal is to make every bit of food packaging suitable for composting so, as Eco-Products CEO, Ian Jacobson, puts it, people “don’t have to think about where to put materials when they’re done using them.”

The current gold standard for products marketed as biodegradable is the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification. Eco-Products compostable products — from hot cups to salad bowls — are BPI certified.

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By supplying compostable bowls, plates, cups and tableware to clients such as the Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, Safeco Field in Seattle and Target Field in Minneapolis, Eco-Products is showing how compostable products can have an impact on a very large scale. For instance, at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, Eco-Products helped boost the diversion rate — the percentage of trash that doesn’t go to a landfill — from 61 percent to 79 percent in just two years.

The Challenges of Creating High-Quality Compostables

Jacobson recognizes that simplifying consumer waste is no simple task. The cups, plates and cutlery are easy; other ballpark fare takes a bit more ingenuity. Now, Eco-Products offers compostable bags for hot dogs. It has even come up with an alternative to all those ketchup and mustard packets: a compostable hot-dog container with built-in reservoirs for condiments.

There are still challenges. Take soup cup lids. For a while, it was not possible to produce a lid that could be composted or made from recycled materials and still be tolerant to heat, so those lids ended up in landfills. Eco-Products has since designed a version of soup cup lids that meets its current standards of either being 100 percent renewable — compostable — or made from post-consumer recycled material — in other words, material already used by consumers that’s been recycled instead of ending up in a landfill.

Problem solved, right? Not quite. The older versions of the lids are cheaper and are specified in existing contracts with a number of Eco-Products’ national clients. It’s not easy changing those contracts, particularly for an item that costs more, but Wendell Simonson, Eco-Products’ vice president of marketing, says the company has made much progress in revising contracts in the past year and still plans to have the legacy lids phased out by 2020.

“If you’re going to do this the right way, you can’t just have those core items be compostable and have everything else not be. It sends the wrong message,” says Simonson. “And it makes the system of collecting at the end more difficult. So, the burden is on companies like us to go out and take the development of compostable items and extend it throughout the entire food-packaging mix.”

Unfortunately, there are many places where Eco-Products may still end up in landfills for lack of commercial composting facilities. While commercial composters are now operating in about 30 states compared to fewer than 10 in 2009, there are still plenty of places where they aren’t readily accessible. And Eco-Products doesn’t recommend burying its sustainable disposables in a backyard compost pile. The conditions just aren’t consistent enough to break them down properly. So, where commercial operations aren’t available, its compostable products are still likely to end up in landfills.

But Jacobson says he is encouraged by how many more local governments are taking seriously the problems caused by food waste in landfills, and new measures like the ban on Styrofoam products recently passed in San Francisco. That city was also the first in the United States to require businesses and homeowners to separate certain food products for composting — including orange peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, apple cores and other plant matter — back in 2009. Today, trash haulers there pick up a greater volume of compost materials than they do recyclables. Other cities, such as New York; Seattle; Minneapolis; Boulder, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon, have followed suit with their own laws designed to keep food out of landfills.

“We’re seeing that happening much more rapidly,” says Jacobson. “Those bans are exactly the kind of mandates that drive change in the procurement process. When we’re sitting across from someone who is buying packaging on a national scale, they know they need to consider compostable products because it’s no longer a small subset of consumers who care. It’s increasingly whole regions of the country. And that drives these companies to want to have a real conversation about alternatives to conventional plastics.”

 

New Ownership Presents New Business Opportunities

WheatStraw_ContainerIn December, Newell Rubbermaid announced that it would buy the Jarden Corporation, which owned Eco Products along with brands such as Mr. Coffee, Yankee Candle and Sunbeam. Simonson says he hopes the new owners will help them expand their international business.

Eco-Products has made a point of paying close attention to the size of its own carbon footprint — an initiative that will be ever-more important as the company grows. A few years ago, it began producing an annual sustainability report in which it evaluates progress toward goals related to its three core priorities — reducing its impact on climate change, preserving natural resources, and fostering social values. One of the benefits of that process has been an analysis of the carbon emissions of both the company’s internal operations and the production, packaging and shipping of its products.

The company’s carbon emissions have dropped each of the past three years, largely due to setting clear, public goals for things like reducing the impact of air travel by the company’s sales staff. Air miles per $1,000 of sales dropped by 11 percent last year. Conversely, the carbon footprint of manufacturing, transporting and disposing of the company’s products has risen each year. Much of that is the result of Eco-Products’ growth — its revenues have roughly tripled since 2010.

Prioritizing Accountability and Transparency

To help its customers track their environmental impact, Eco-Products sends them an annual report detailing the estimated greenhouse gases emitted and the energy expended during the life cycles of the sustainable disposables they ordered.

“We feel it’s important to be comprehensive in that,” says Jacobson. “So, when we’re working with a company or a stadium or a corporate campus, we’re able to deliver a review of the full impact of their disposable purchases. It’s a core part of what we do to understand those impacts.”

Your company can become a force for good when you download our FREE Special Report, Socially Responsible Food: How Ethical Food Companies Are Creating a Better Food System Through Better Business.

That kind of information is valuable to businesses and big public venues as they focus more sharply on meeting sustainability goals, which undoubtedly have become a higher priority in recent years. That’s clear to Jacobson, who sees it in the number of customers with goals of one day being zero-waste operations.

“We’ve made a lot of progress around water bottles and aluminum cans. It’s pretty well understood what to do with those items. And now you’ve got a sustainability-minded customer out there asking, ‘Okay, what’s next?,’” says Jacobson.

Simonson adds another perspective: “This is finding its way into actual business decisions, like when a big customer of ours that manages hospitals or stadiums sets company-wide goals as it relates to limiting the amount of food they waste.

“You might have the same person who sat across the table from us five years ago, and they thought we didn’t know what we were doing. But now we know we’re on the right side of this thing.”

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