SAN FRANCISCO —
The average American throws away approximately 84 kilos of plastic every year, and much of it ends up in the ocean, according to the marine research group, Algalita. Almost half is tossed away after just one use.
Industrial engineer Paul Tasner spent most of his professional career making plastic, specifically blister packs, the plastic casing for consumer products. Then, one day, already on his way to becoming environmentally conscious, he had an epiphany that changed his life.
“My wife came back from a big box retailer with a pair of industrial strength shears for opening packages," he recalled. "That’s what it said on the package: ‘For opening those hard to open plastic, blister packages.’ The shears were called, ‘Open it.’ And, the ludicrous, hysterical part of this scenario was that the shears were packed in a blister pack!”
Shears can be used to open plastic blister packs... once you get them out of the blister pack!
Laid off because of the recession, but far from ready to retire, the 64-year-old decided to start his own company. He would create biodegradable packaging that would offer the same quality as its plastic counterparts, but could be composted into a soil supplement - rather than ending up in trash dumps for thousands of years.
Architect Elena Olivari, who has a background in engineering and design, was looking for a challenge. She decided to take a chance and join Tasner’s start-up, because a family member’s death from cancer had made a strong impact.
She explained, “There are links of plastic-related cancer, so even doing something that can reduce that number of people that are harmed by the plastic and reducing the amount of plastic in the world which is becoming absolutely too big to deal with, we’re doing something that made me feel like even if we can make a small difference, that’s better than nothing.”
They named their company, launched in August, 2011, PulpWorks. Combining their strengths, Tasner and Olivari created a patent-pending product called Karta-Pack to replace blister packs.
Paul Tasner and Elena Olivari make a pitch to investors standing in front of a mountain of plastic trash
Tasner, now 71, points to egg cartons as he stresses that the technology they use is not new, "but we take that technology and create what we think are a lot more attractive and sexier packaging than an egg carton. And, by using different materials -- egg cartons are made from recycled newspapers -- we use newspapers, corrugated [cardboard], but we also use many different agricultural fibers that give a whole different look and color and feel to them. You wouldn’t recognize it as molded pulp.”
Tasner set up deals with half a dozen of his old contacts who use agricultural fibers to create different textures and colors. Now his company has six partners in five countries on different continents who only use local materials.
"Our partners in China have access to bamboo and sugar cane, our partner in Canada has access to wheat straw, and on and on and on. Any kind of fibrous material, cellulosic material, is fair game for molding into a package. So, by having a wide variety of geography, you have a wide variety of raw materials.”
Tasner and Olivari are especially excited about their partnership with Tennessee-based Genera Energy. The eight-year-old biotechnology company turns plant fibers and other biomass into fuel, chemicals and other products.
Agriculture fiber pulp moves along a conveyor belt at the Genera Energy plant, on its way to becoming compostable products, like PulpWorks' Karta-Pack.
Tasner says it will provide the raw materials, processing, and molding services for PulpWorks.
“It’s like coming back to our original dream of being in self-manufacturing. In this case, it’s not entirely self-manufacturing, but we have a strong relationship with this company," he said. "It’s more than just a typical out-sourced relationship. So, It feels like we’re closing the loop, coming back to the original dream.”
Tasner says he knows that PulpWorks is making an impact because potential clients who wouldn’t return his calls five years ago, are now calling him. The customer list includes some of the biggest companies in the world: T-Mobile, Burt’s Bees cosmetic products (owned by Chlorox,) Max Factor and Cover Girl cosmetics (owned by Proctor and Gamble), a division of Campell’s soups, and Leapfrog Toys.
Mascara in plastic packaging (left), next to Pulpworks' compostable packaging
Tasner says proudly that PulpWorks is now at the forefront of green packaging.
“Every package that we produce is a piece of plastic that’s not going to a landfill," he said. "What could be better than that? Except to doing it a billion times over and that’s our goal.”
PulpWorks is focused on expanding its use of local agricultural fibers to more countries on other continents, including Africa, and is looking to attract more clients eager to be environmentally responsible.