Santa Barbara’s Be Green Harvests Cattails for Packaging

Biodegradable But Here to Stay

Bulrush bucks: Be Green Packaging's chairman Robert Richman, eco-adviser Megan Havrda, and director Ron Blitzer.
Paul Wellman

Overpackaging has been a curse word in eco circles since the ’60s, but retailers’ prime directive of luring customers-and protecting products-with gleaming, durable plastic is not resisted easily.

So it’s safe to say that Be Green Packaging, a two-year-old company with downtown Santa Barbara headquarters, is a significant player in the rush toward eco-conscious packaging. Just this month, Be Green Packaging struck a deal to supply containers for salad bars at every Ralphs supermarket throughout Southern California. The company has been supplying salad containers to Whole Foods Markets worldwide since May 2007.

Founded by Ron Blitzer, who also cofounded Bank of Santa Barbara, and his venture capitalist partner Robert Richman, Be Green makes fully compostable packaging out of bulrushes- Typha orientalis, commonly known as cattails. Compared to molded foam, which can take a thousand years to biodegrade, or most plastics, which never disintegrate, the bulrush containers take just 20-90 days to return to the soil, claimed Megan Havrda, Be Green’s eco-adviser and marketing director.

Blitzer and company like the cattails because they grow quickly and voluntarily. They can be harvested without having to be planted or cultivated. They simply are collected, according to Havrda, from hillsides in China’s Manchuria region, near where the company’s factories are located. They are not taken from marshes or waterways, Havrda said, which might harm those ecosystems, but from the hillsides above the water. Besides interfering minimally with the natural environment, Blitzer noted, this style of harvesting, called “wildcrafting,” does not replace food crop space.

Although pulp factories are major polluters, Blitzer said, “Ours in China is state-of-the-art.”

The containers are unbleached and nontoxic. Havrda said that less than 50 parts per million of an FDA-approved moisure and grease barrier, DuPont’s Zonal, is mixed into the bulrush batter before it is molded into form. Although pulp factories are major polluters, Blitzer said, “Ours in China is state-of-the-art.” The containers are freezer- and microwave-safe.

Because Ralphs, like most supermarkets, wants clear plastic tops for the salad containers-primarily to prevent people from smuggling more expensive items out of the store inside the salad container-Be Green contracts Oxnard’s Coolpak for tops made of recyclable plastic. (While biodegradable plastics do exist, the FDA does not allow their use as food containers.) Coolpak, which supplies Trader Joe’s, is working on converting that chain to biodegradable containers for its highly packaged vegetables and fruits, Havrda claimed.

Although Whole Foods customers might be expected to shell out a little more for sustainable containers, most supermarkets might not: The containers have to be priced competitively, and one of the things that makes them so-besides fluctuating oil prices-is that they can be transported more efficiently. Four of Be Green’s meat trays, for example, take up the space of a single foam meat tray.

The company’s principals are an interesting mix of eco-evangelists and hard-nosed business types. Richman, the venture capitalist, has “brokered amazing deals in many industries; he just has an incredible sense for businesses that can grow exponentially,” Havrda explained. Havrda herself has impressive environmental credentials. She has guided backpacking tours, served as development director for Women’s Economic Ventures, and lived in the sustainable township of Auroville, on the Bay of Bengal in India. She also helped UCSB archaeologist Anabel Ford create a reserve and surrounding development at the site of the Maya city of El Pilar. For the last several years, Havrda has owned her own land development company-three of them, actually-specializing in green building and inner-city revitalization.

Blitzer, who moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, has made a lucrative career of manufacturing and marketing plastic products. Until recently, he owned Nation’s Plastics, a private company whose clients include Starbucks. Be Green began as Blitzer’s vision, primarily: “I decided I wanted my legacy not to be polluting the planet,” Blitzer said.

Since beginning this business, Blitzer and Richman have traded in their gas-guzzlers for hybrids. Their business cards are printed with soy ink and they drink from green-certified beverage bottles instead of paper cups. With business so booming, one must wonder what would happen if Be Green runs out of bulrushes. Havrda doesn’t see that happening. “Bulrushes grow across the entire Western Hemisphere, too. There is no shortage, and if there ever were, we’re flexible and savvy enough that we could use another fiber.”


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