When I first heard about earthcycle, recent competitor for “Most promising investment opportunity” at last week’s Clean Tech Forum I was initially impressed. Their flagship products are produce packaging made from palm fiber, the remainders of palm fruit harvesting, which would otherwise be burnt.
But after mentioning it on Twitter, I was quickly reminded that Palm fruit planting and harvesting have a not so sustainable history, and according to Scientific American,
Today palm oil production is the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and other equatorial countries with dwindling expanses of tropical rainforest.
Fortunately, that’s not the case across the board.
earthcycle’s source material is SGS certified sustainably harvested. While some green companies can be overly optimistic in their projected share of market, Earthcycle, in their presentation at the recent Clean Tech Forum conference, shared that they were .05% of the $1.8 billion produce packaging market, anticipating being .35% of a $2.1 billion market by 2011.
While sounding small, they are currently profitable after a 2005 launch and two rounds of funding, with a vertically integrated production capacity, in a facility that also makes palm oil based products, so there’s no additional transport from one company to another. That’s likely out of necessity, as nobody else makes packaging from palm fiber, but it gives them greater control and stability of their operations and their cost.
They are an ambitious company, their first customer being Wal-Mart in 2005. But smartly, no single company comprises 25% of their sales. Other customers include Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Safeway, IGA, Whole Foods, Publix, Kroger, and Sobeys.
Reading their executive summary, they make the precipitous case for more packaging in products marketed for sustainably minded consumers. They say it’s good for margin conscious grocers due to reduced unsellable product and labor needed to sort and display loose produce. Aware that more packaging is largely equated with less sustainability, they are quick to point out,
Using an environmentally responsible package for fresh produce also offers a consistency of message between the product and the package, which more consumers are demanding.
And what about the actual products themselves? In their natural state they are a warm, pleasing color, sturdy, and are both compostable and recyclable. Covering a range of related packaging needs, Earthcycle also offers food service packs, fresh meat, poultry and seafood trays, and garden pots. They can be custom colored using vegetable based dyes. When you need heat sealed bagging or wrapping, they’ve got biodegradable wood pulp based Natureflex. When rigid lids are needed, they have a PET option, one of the more widely recycled plastics.
So while palm fibers aren’t going to soon replace petroleum based packaging, what they do create will be beneficial in many ways, coming from an annually renewable resource, diverting what would otherwise be additional air pollution where they’re otherwise burnt, and reducing landfill load due to compostability.
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media. Who he has and wants to work with includes consumer, media, clean tech, NGOs, social ventures, and museums.