PulpWorks aims to replace plastic blister packages

SAN RAFAEL -- PulpWorks, a San Rafael-based company that uses recycled paper pulp to replace PVC packaging, won the top prize at the sixth annual North Bay Innovation Summit in September. The company, founded in 2011, aims to sell sustainable packaging to such companies as Wal-Mart, Clorox and Procter & Gamble. Current customers include EO Products, which makes bath and skin-care products and is based in San Rafael, and Groupon, headquartered in Chicago. The packaging replaces blister packaging made of pre-formed plastic.

The summit, held at Sonoma Mountain Village, was organized by SoCo Nexus, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring innovation in the North Bay, especially businesses based on sustainable resources, medical technology, cloud-based computing and manufacturing.

PulpWorks, a C-corporation with just three full-time people, was one of a dozen companies that presented to four panels of judges, who then picked four finalists. The company, which is seeking further funding, won $5,000 as the top finalist, selected by audience members.

Paul Tasner, CEO and a co-founder, said that when he founded the company, he planned to build a manufacturing facility in the Bay Area. “We were going to create jobs, use local waste, build a very green facility,” Mr. Tasner said. “We thought we were onto something. But we just couldn’t raise the money.” Roughly $15 million to $20 million was needed. “We were neophytes in the world of raising money.”

They met with people from public and private sources, including Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan, thinking that west Oakland might be a good plant site. “We were going to start with an old building that needed rehabilitation,” Mr. Tasner said. Elena Olivari, vice president of research and development and also a co-founder, is an architect who intended to design the green plant as a model of sustainability. “It was crazy. The prices were just absolutely insane,” said Ms. Olivari. Even in Oakland for a “shack in bad, bad, bad shape was $4 million. After a year, we gave up.”

They abandoned the notion of doing their own manufacturing. Instead, they outsource production. One vendor is in Arizona. Two primary manufacturing partners are in China, with a total of seven.

Most of the material used for packaging is post-consumer waste paper. Other material is corrugated cardboard. Waste agricultural material is also used, such as sugar cane and rice cane waste. Bagasse is food-grade, biodegradable containers made of recycled paper. The pulp is held together with a binder material. “These are long-fiber materials,” Ms. Olivari said. “It’s a slurry” that is then formed and dried, much like papier-mâché (chewed paper). “The consistency changes depending on the process,” from rough products such as egg carton to thermoformed, which is thin, smooth packaging, dried under heat and pressure, and resembles plastic.

At this point, “we’re mostly doing prototypes” of branded products, said Natasha Tuck, vice president of marketing, figuring out package design and materials for such companies as Back to the Roots, based in Oakland, which sells a self-cleaning fish tank that grows food, and mushroom-growing kits. Leapfrog Toys is also at the exploratory stage, as is Bloom Energy, which makes solid-oxide fuel cells.

Gaining attention with the technology is easy, Ms. Tuck said, but getting customers to change is difficult. “They’re very risk-averse. The big guys are very slow-moving. We have a lot of smaller companies that are willing to try it.”

Clorox, for example, told PulpWorks that many of its customers may not care whether the package is plastic or pulp. According to Ms. Tuck, only about 7 to 10 percent of plastic can be recycled, primarily polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in soft drink bottles.

PulpWorks has made packaging for an EO Products breath freshener. One EO product run involved some 30,000 units.

According to Ms. Tuck, PulpWorks packaging costs about the same as packages made with plastic as long as the package units number nearly a million. The process involves the printed card that carries product information and advertising, a molded pulp blister that replaces plastic, and assembly. If a company wants consumers to be able to see the product, PulpWorks creates a window in the package using die-cut printing.

The packages resist compression and can be stacked and nested.

“It’s as good as Styrofoam,” Ms. Olivari said, unless the packages are subjected to water or humidity. Assembly for plastic blister packaging has been automated over the past 60 years, Mr. Tasner said. The PulpWorks process is new, and requires hand assembly. “As soon as we have the volume, there’ll be equipment for it,” he said.

The manufacturing partners have to pay recyclers for bulk waste paper, especially for waste that has been cleaned. “They pay dearly for that,” said Mr. Tasner, who notes that the company has no apparent competitors yet.

Unilever, Amazon and Nike, for example, already have embraced sustainable packaging, according to Mr. Tasner.

Wal-Mart, based in Arkansas and the world’s largest company measured by revenue of nearly $500 billion, publicly touts its commitment to sustainable packaging. “To create zero waste, we’re rethinking processes, using smarter packaging, recycling and reducing plastic bag use,” reads a statement on the Wal-Mart corporate website. “We’re integrating a new retail standard that will assess and improve the sustainability of our products.” The company has two stores in Rohnert Park, one in Windsor and another in Napa.

Sponsors for the innovation summit included Sonoma Mountain Village, which provided the $5,000 prize, Kings Hill Cellars, Sonoma County Water Agency, Summit State Bank, North Bay Business Journal, Codding, Sonoma State University, Wells Fargo, the City of Santa Rosa, Sonic.net and Carle, Mackie, Power & Ross.

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