By Lorrie Baumann
World Centric is just going into production with a line of compostable packaging for prepared foods made out of fiber that’s grown in the USA and turned into clamshells and covered plates in an American factory under American environmental regulations and sustainability ethics. They comply with the regulations of an increasing number of cities across the country that now require take-out food to be served in packaging that can go into municipal composting facilities instead of into the landfill.
The new containers are made by World Centric, which was started in 2004 as a nonprofit organization. “For us, the business initially was a result of trying to support a nonprofit mission of raising awareness of social and environmental issues,” says World Centric Founder Aseem Das. “We have kept a lot of those values for making change and trying to do our part, in whatever small way, to create a better world and make a difference…. Packaging was opportunistic. We were looking around for a way to support the nonprofit, for products and services that would be sustainable and beneficial to the environment or services that help mitigate social disparities that exist in the world.”
World Centric is headquartered in Petaluma, California, and in those days “polystyrene,” known commonly by the brand name, Styrofoam, had already become a bit of a dirty word in California. Cities around the state were becoming concerned about the material’s durability in the environment and the expense of picking it up off beaches, and they started passing bans on the material. “In 2005, we were at the Green Festival in San Francisco. We were so busy because everybody was so interested in compostable packaging as an alternative to Styrofoam,” Das remembers. “People just got the concept of compostable packaging. There was a fair amount of interest in it.”
Interest was so great that, gradually, Das started spending more time running the business and less time tending to the nonprofit organization. Finally, after some soul-searching, Das decided in 2009 to end the nonprofit organization and become a for-profit enterprise while keeping many of the same values that propelled him into business in the first place. World Centric was registered as a certified B corporation in 2010 and a California Benefit Corporation in 2013. The company donates 25 percent of its profits to organizations that address social and environmental issues.
Back when Das was deciding that he needed to focus all his attention on the business of making a profit, Scott Coye-Huhn and a group of business partners were exercising their own combination of idealism and profit motive with a plan to create biomass reserves for renewable fuels. They were looking at marginal farmlands around the U.S. that might be able to grow a perennial crop even if they couldn’t support annual crops like corn or wheat. The thought was that they’d plant once, harvest a crop year after year, and use the plant fibers as biomass to make fuel. “A perennial gives sustainable characteristics; you use much less fuel, much less chemicals, create less erosion,” Coye-Huhn says. “That’s the game-changer here.”
They found that an Asian plant called Miscanthus would grow in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where farmers had land that wouldn’t grow an annual crop. Coye-Huhn and his partners worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get the plant certified for planting in the U.S., after demonstrating that Miscanthus doesn’t make viable seed and can’t become an invasive pest, and started signing up farmers who needed an income from fallow farm lands. “It’s a big deal. The average age of U.S. farmers is almost 60 years,” Coye-Huhn says. “When you plant a crop that grows for 20 years, it solves a lot of problems that come with transitioning family farms from one generation to the next.”
Along the way, the focus changed from using the plant fiber as biomass for fuel to finding other ways to use it. “Why packaging? The capital to build a full-scale pulp mill is significant, but we can do something like this on a much smaller scale,” Coye-Huhn says. “Consumers are asking for this kind of packaging. We learned from our research and development that we can make a pretty darn good package.”
Coye-Huhn and his company, Aloterra, then went looking for somebody who could sell the packaging if they made it and found World Centric, which by that time had a decade of experience importing compostable packaging from Asia and distributing it to customers in the U.S. and which shared the sense of conscientious capitalism that motivated Aloterra. “Getting into distribution is monster work, filled with holes you can fall into. World Centric is good at selling and distributing the product,” Coye-Huhn said.
The new packaging made by Aloterra and marketed by World Centric will start coming off the line this August. World Centric is offering it first to the company’s existing customers but will start taking orders from new customers shortly. “We sell a lot of products and we are nationwide. The products are currently made in Asia. For us, we’ll be replacing those products with the ones that Scott will be making,” Das says.
“These jobs can never be exported. The economics implode if you try to truck biomass more than 50 or 75 miles,” Coye-Huhn adds. “Technically we’re reshoring here. We’re moving jobs from Asia for this manufacturing plant.”