Boulder, Colo.-based Eco-Products, which manufactures sustainable, disposable cups, plates and packaging, works with everyone from the Minnesota Twins to The Melt, a restaurant chain that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches. With multiple large customers, Sarah Martinez, Eco-Products’ self-titled sustainability maven, says the firm generated more than $100 million in sales last year.
Martinez says her company’s mission is to change the way society thinks about disposables, one cup at a time. Her background is as green as they come; she was previously the senior sustainability manager for Target, and before that was vice president of corporate responsibility for industrial real estate giant Prologis.
She says she makes sure sustainability is integrated throughout her firm, from the company’s operations to its products, and to broader stakeholder engagement on environmental and social issues. That includes helping customers with their own sustainability efforts and zero-waste operations.
Waste360 talked with Martinez about the approach Eco-Products has taken to help generators reduce their waste footprint.
Waste360: Can you give a little bit of background on Eco-Products?
Sarah Martinez: Our brand of single-use, food-service products are made from renewable resources and post-consumer recycled content. The best way to sum up what we do is our core positioning statement: “Green is all we do.” The fact that we only sell “green” enables us to have a singular focus on the sustainable segment of the category. Because sustainability has always been at the heart of who we are and what we do, it makes sense that the company would have a dedicated sustainability function.
Waste360: How does Eco-Products work with companies and consumers to promote its products?
Sarah Martinez: The first thing to understand is that Eco-Products does not have products on retail shelves, so we don’t employ the standard promotional activities you would expect to see from a classic B-to-C brand. We do, however, take a B-to-C approach to our broader brand strategy, and hope to achieve points of difference by doing things differently than our competitors might within the conventional institutional foodservice communications mix. We also have an aggressive partnership strategy that seeks to formalize relationships between Eco-Products and high-profile waste-diverting foodservice operations such as sports stadiums and entertainment venues.
Waste360: Why do you think disposables are better to use than other similar products?
Sarah Martinez: There’s a lot to say here, but the first and most important thing to know is that most of the challenge for foodservice operators is figuring out whether or not what they are buying is actually compostable. Some manufacturers are clear about their claims and some are far from it. We take our claims extremely seriously and feel that our customers benefit from that level of transparency.
We also recognize that our customers need a lot more than just legitimate compostable products to achieve their goals, so we offer a variety of services free of charge that are designed to help operators achieve a return on their increased packaging investment. A few examples of those services are communications and content support, custom carbon footprint reporting and waste diversion consulting. We want to make the effort as easy as possible for them.
Waste360: Why do you think some companies embrace zero waste while others are slow to adopt?
Sarah Martinez: Many companies have embraced zero waste as smart business, and many others would like to but are facing some challenges. Some of it has to do with access to recycling and composting services. Some businesses have the ability to recycle a wide variety of things, and also have access to commercial composting. This means that, if managed correctly, waste diversion rates of 90 percent and above are possible regardless of what their material stream may look like.
Other businesses may have almost no access to recycling and composting, which obviously makes things a lot more challenging. Then, of course, there has to be a desire on the part of the company to dedicate the resources that are required to effectively manage a zero-waste effort. While that commitment will vary widely from business to business, it is certainly more work than just throwing everything in the trash and calling it a day. For that reason, it is common to see companies with sustainability built into their missions and brands taking a leadership role on waste diversion.
Waste360: What should companies consider when transitioning from conventional plastics to sustainable products?
Sarah Martinez: There are, of course, cost differences between the products we sell and conventional plastic products – and there should be. Conventional plastics are typically destined for the landfill and are made from the world’s most valuable non-renewable resource. Our products are made from renewable resources and can be composted along with food waste and other organic material once they have been used. In some cases there are differences in performance, but our goal has always been to create more sustainable products that perform as well as their conventional alternatives. That said, nothing is ever going to insulate like foam, and some of our products can only be used with cold foods.
Mainly, prepare for a lot of positive feedback coming from your employees and customers. A visible commitment to sustainability goes a long way these days, and foodservice packaging is a perfect billboard to use as way to broadcast that commitment.
Waste360: What are the challenges faced by trying to inject disposable products into traditional consumer products?
Sarah Martinez: Disposable products are not ideal because they are made to be disposed of immediately after use. Many people ask us if it is hard to be in the zero waste business when all you make are disposable products. The reality is that we are a long, long way from the day when disposable products are no longer a part of our society. Even if we were able to reel in our addiction to the convenience of doing everything on the go, we are still going to need disposables for all sorts of things.
That’s why there needs to be a more sustainable solution to the conventional plastics we see in the market today. Given the myriad challenges that exist on the recycling side for foodservice packaging, our approach is to advocate for the use of compostable packaging and to do whatever we can to promote increased access to commercial composting.
Waste360: Why is switching to sustainable products not only good for the planet, but very good for business?
Sarah Martinez: While the research is broad and varied, it would be hard to argue that there is not a growing sentiment amongst American consumers that “green” is a desired feature of the products and services they buy. The question, of course, is how much are they willing to pay for it? The businesses we sell to clearly feel that providing their customers with sustainable packaging for their foodservice offerings is important – and good for business.
I think most of us would agree that there is a big difference between handing your customer a cup of coffee in a foam cup, and handing him or her that same beverage in a disposable cup. Not every customer may care, but the ones who do tend to care a lot, and will reward those businesses that make sound choices.