With less than 10 percent of all plastic in the United States recovered from recycling, clearly we can do more about the approximate 32 million tons of plastic waste that is generated annually. But as the cost of virgin plastic decreases because of the lower cost of oil, any future boost in recycling this material, which is about 13 percent of all municipal waste, is not looking too hopeful in the near future. One company in northern California, however, has found opportunity into churning cardboard and newsprint into containers that work just as well as their plastic alternatives—while providing small town jobs.
Ecologic Brands was founded in 2008 by Julie Corbett, who was tired of all the waste from plastic jugs and cartons that her family was generating. She became inspired by a paper fiber tray that encased a new cell phone she purchased, along with the milk pouches typically sold in Canada, Europe and Latin America. A new bottle, and company, was born.
Manufactured in the San Joaquin Valley town of Manteca, 75 miles east of San Francisco, the eco.bottle containers come in three sizes and can hold dry or liquid products. According to Corbett, the bottles are overall made from 70 percent old corrugated cardboard and the rest is sourced from old newsprint. For liquid products such as dish soap, a plastic pouch can be inserted into the containers. The paper shell is not laminated, nor does it contain any plastic. Its design is a stark contrast to conventional milk and juice cartons, which comprise paper, plastic and link layers laminated together, and are therefore difficult to recycle.
Corbett explained that when recyclables are baled after collection, the paper shell of an Ecologic container crumbles, allowing it to easily separate from the #4 plastic LDPE (low density polyethylene) pouch. “But even if the pouch goes all the way to the paper processing facility, it will float to the top during the recycling process, and then it will be separated by skimmers,” says Corbett.
Companies looking for ways to make their products more sustainable (and more appealing) to customers may want to consider moving towards paper-based containers. Plastic resin per ton is about $1,000 to $1,300 a ton; recycled plastic resin is not that much cheaper. Recycled cardboard runs at about $150 a ton, while old newsprint fetches about $70 for the same amount of material. Corbett said the number of Ecologic containers that can come from a ton of recycled paper is about the same if they were derived from plastic. While she would not disclose the cost of Ecologic’s containers, she insisted they were comparable to their plastic competitors, and that as the company scores more customers (currently the company has about 20 including Seventh Generation, Nestlé and Purina), she expects economies of scale to drive prices down even further.
For Corbett, however, her company does more than provide a more environmentally friendly product. Ecologic is also about renewing local economies, especially since the divide between wealthy cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, and smaller cities in towns in the San Joaquin Valley, is widening—a trend ongoing across the country. “The paper industry sustained a lot of small towns for generations, and for many years our nation was built on small economies,” says Corbett. “What’s really great about paper is that it really is a national product it can create economic growth.
Paper doesn’t have to be in huge cities by large ports like Houston, which is one of the few entries in which imported oil comes into this country. Paper can be based in small town America and thrive, the way it did in small towns for decades, as it did throughout New England, the South and the Pacific Northwest,” continued Corbett. Corbett continued to argue that the plastics industry, because of logistics, tends to be concentrated in areas that are hubs for the petroleum and natural gas industries. Case in point: Ecologic’s manufacturing is in Manteca (population 72,000) because of its proximity to the Interstate 5 corridor, which offers bountiful supplies of corrugated cardboard due to the agricultural sector.
Corbett expects her company to roll out new products in the future, such as a new molded fiber bottle that is 100 percent recycled cardboard and newsprint—including the cap, which is also made from paper. Once seen as passé, could paper make a comeback thanks to companies such as Ecologic? “Economic development should be part of this sustainability conversation, and that is what is so beautiful about paper,” says Corbett.
Image credits: Ecologic Brands
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.