Innovation: PulpWorks tilts at retail blister packaging

SAN RAFAEL -- Product quiz: What's been on retail shelves for 50 years, has a life span of 100,000 years and causes 50,000 visits to the emergency room a year?

The answer is the blister pack, the ubiquitous and widely hated polyvinyl chloride (PVC) clear plastic packaging that entombs just about everything from AA batteries to Zippo lighters.

"Consumers don't like it, and along with expanded polystyrene (EPS), it's terrible for the environment," said Paul Tasner, an outspoken opponent of both. He's come up with a compostable, all-paper alternative and formed PulpWorks Inc. to take it to market.

[caption id="attachment_64276" align="alignright" width="283"] EO Products of San Rafael is testing its hand sanitizer spray bottles in PW-Pack retail packaging.[/caption]

His PW-Pack is made of recycled paper molded like an egg carton to cradle the product, with a printed, branded, die-cut face card for retail display.

The PW-Pack has a lot going for it. It's often less expensive to manufacture, warehouse and ship than PVC and EPS packaging. EPS foam is most commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam. PW-Pack assembles rapidly, provides cushioning superior to plastic, is static-free and its production and disposal doesn't release chemicals fingered for human-caused climate change. Easy and safe to open, it degrades quickly when composted.

But what it's not is even more significant. Seven billion pounds of PVC are discarded every year in the United States. Production and incineration of PVC is a major source of the carcinogen dioxin in the environment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Styrene, a chemical in EPS, can migrate into human tissue from containers and is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. EPS foam containers also pollute both land and ocean.

The price points of such packaging perpetuates their use, according to Mr. Tasner.

"The chemical and manufacturing industries have been honing formulations and production methods for decades," he said. "They've worked out any bugs and brought the costs down relatively close to zero. These are very difficult industries to challenge on price points. Manufacturers are pretty well locked in to whatever saves them money."

Yet the winds of change are blowing. Regulators are looking more closely at polluted waterways and air. Even more encouraging is giant retailers are taking note.

"Wal-Mart has vowed to clear all PVC packaging from its stores by 2014," said Mr. Tasner. "That's the kind of action we badly need."

An industrial engineer and consultant, his background is in supply chain management and sustainability, about which he currently lectures for the MBA program at San Francisco State University. Mr. Tasner is also founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Green Supply Chain Forum, the first such assembly of supply chain executives.

His co-founder in PulpWorks ( is Elena Olivari, an internationally known design architect.

"My 30 years of directing all aspects of sourcing, manufacturing and logistics are standing me in good stead for this venture," said Mr. Tasner. "We have manufacturing operations set up and ready to handle any volume of production."

High volume will be needed for PulpWorks to succeed. Margins are tiny in the packaging industry: just pennies per unit. He's talking with his connections in the manufacturing world, including Clorox, Procter & Gamble, Coty, Apple and Target.

"They're all very interested," he said. "We've had no trouble getting meetings. Now, we need orders."

One manufacturer that's interested is EO Products of San Rafael, maker of natural personal products. The company worked with PulpWorks as a development partner.

"We have an organic breath spray that we wanted to package for point-of-sale display," said EO Products Chief Operating Officer Michael Cronin. "We wanted to stay away from PVC, of course, and glue, if possible, because it can jeopardize the recycle process. But we wanted the product to be seen."

Blister pack has the advantage of putting the product right in front of the consumer, an effect PulpWorks mimics by molding pulp to the back of the item while showing the front of it behind a snap-in cardboard face.

"There's no adhesive, it's relatively easy to produce and it offers good presentation value," said Mr. Cronin. "We envision recycling the cardboard cartons that our supplies come in to produce our packaging, a closed loop."

To that end his company is working to convince major retailers that small items can be shown attractively in the PW-Pack.

[caption id="attachment_64277" align="alignleft" width="358"] PulpWorks principals Paul Tasner and Elena Olivari at The Venture Greenhouse in San Rafael[/caption]

Meanwhile, Mr. Tasner is getting good mentoring services from The Venture Greenhouse, the incubator at San Rafael-based Dominican University of California. Self-funded PulpWorks isn't dependent on investment funding, but he and Ms. Olivari would welcome a round of about $250,000 in angel funding to speed things up.

That is likely to happen soon. Recently, the PulpWorks presentation took third prize -- first prize among American companies -- out of 30 entrants in a venture forum co-sponsored by Silicon Valley and Chinese venture capital firms.

"We were interviewed by two TV stations," said Mr. Tasner. "We felt like rock stars. But our overall mission is to rid the waste stream of PVC and EPS. Every one of our products is a small favor for the Earth."•••

Do you know of an innovator or an innovative product or service in the North Bay (Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Solano, Mendocino and Lake counties) that you think should be featured in the Innovation column? We’d love to hear about it (

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