TOWN HAUL PODCAST
Welcome to the Town Haul Podcast
HOSTED BY AMY KOONIN
Rubicon’s first and only podcast where we share advice for techies, earth lovers and for penny pinchers!
Keep Calm and Compost
- Introduction to the Town Haul Rubicon Podcast
- Annie Davis Introduction & Background
- About World Centric
- Sustainable Business
- How World Centric Gives Back
- Composting 101
- Producing Compostable Products
- Sustainable vs. Traditional Paper Products
- Implementing Sustainability
- What Does Zero-Waste Look Like?
- Zero Waste for Small Businesses
- Q&A with Annie
- Conclusion & Goodbyes
Introduction to the Town Haul Rubicon Podcast
[00:10] Amy Koonin: Hey, guys. My name is Amy Koonin and I am your host for the Town Haul, Rubicon’s first and only podcast where we share advice for techies, for Earth lovers, and for penny pinchers. As much as I love the sound of my own voice, this broadcast is going to rely heavily on guests or subject matter experts on everything ranging from how to get your small business up and running, interviews with some of the brains behind your favorite apps, and even how to remove garbage … from outer space. You never know who’s going to pop up and join me next in studio, so make sure and subscribe to The Town Haul on iTunes to get our episodes downloaded directly. And if your boss is making you work through lunch or your commute is just too short and you miss something awesome, don’t worry, we’ve got your back. You can check out our blog for recaps, reviews, and all things Town Haul. Hey everybody and welcome to another excited episode of The Town Haul. Today I am joined on the West Coast via Skype by Annie Davis, the director of business development for World Centric. They’re a really incredible company, they’re a fellow B Corp, they’re doing amazing things in the compostable packaging realm, but obviously I’ll let Annie talk more about that. So, thank you so much for being here today.
Annie Davis Introduction & Background
[01:25] Annie Davis: Well, thanks so much for having me.
[01:27] Amy Koonin: Before we get down and dirty … well, no composting pun intended. Why don’t we start by telling the listeners a little bit more about you, Annie, and your role, as well as about World Centric and some of the cool stuff you guys are doing.
[01:43] Annie Davis: Sure. So, my current role in business is business development and I’m responsible for identifying and targeting, pursuing new accounts for World Centric, primarily channels that are new or emerging for our company. But I’ve only been in this role for less than a year and prior to that I was director of partnerships and that’s where I met Rubicon Global and as director of partnerships, one of my core responsibilities was to help identify leads for our customers to close the loop for our products, so to find composting facilities, to find end of life options, so that our products that are all made from plants and technically can be composted, could actually get composted. And interestingly, I came to the role of director of partnerships from prior to that being director of marketing with this company.
[02:34] Annie Davis: I’ve been here for about five years total and mainly in my marketing role I grew really passionate about making sure that the claims that we are making from a marketing perspective were actually able to be realized in the real world. So it’s one thing for something to be on paper or be in testing to be compostable and it’s another thing for it to actually in the real world reach a facility where it can be composted. So, that’s a little bit about my role at the company. I’ve been here for five years, but World Centric has been around for about 14 years. We just had our 14 year anniversary.
[03:13] Amy Koonin: Congratulations.
About World Centric
[03:14] Annie Davis: Thank you. We were founded in 2004 to raise awareness of large scale humanitarian environmental issues and we actually started as a nonprofit organization. And our founder started developing and selling our compostable products as a stream of earned income revenue, to support the nonprofit organization. But now 14 years later, the development, manufacture, and sale of certified compostable food service ware is our core activity. And what that means is [inaudible 00:03:47], if you think about any kind of disposable to go packaging that you would use to eat with. So, you go to a restaurant and you get your food to go, it comes in a clamshell container or you get it through a restaurant that doesn’t have dishware, they have paper plates and plastic forks, well, we make alternatives to those and everything we make is made from plants and when we say it’s compostable, that means that when it’s disposed of and gets to a composting facility, it will turn back into soil within four months. So these materials that most of the time otherwise go to landfill, in our context and the way that we manufacture them, they can actually turn back into plants at the end of their life.
[04:32] Amy Koonin: And what sparked your personal passion for sustainability? You know this is a pretty niche market making compostable plasticware and packaging. How did you get inspired?
[04:43] Annie Davis: Yeah, good question. That’s a good question. I have been in the sustainability space now for about 11 years, the past 11 years since I graduated from business school, and then prior to that I worked in the nonprofit sector on environmental issues, so I’ve long had a passion for sustainability, but it wasn’t always called that. But I think for me it originated in my personal love of the outdoors. I’ve always been an avid hiker and camper and someone who loved to be outside and so my love for the natural environment connected me to working in this space of, first, nonprofit organizations that were working on conservation as well as other types of environmental protection and additionally the human health aspects of the sustainability in terms of air quality and water quality. And when I was getting my MBA between the years 2005 and 2007, that was when the film An Inconvenient Truth came out and I actually remember Al Gore came and spoke at my school and this emerging field of corporate social responsibility, environment sustainability, what companies could do, how companies could have an impact on reducing our carbon impact on the planet and reducing our impact as a whole on the planet as human beings emerged. So, for the past 11 years or so I have been doing varying roles across the scape in the sustainable business landscape. I’ve worked in solar, in biofuels, I’m now in sustainable products.
[06:24] Amy Koonin: I’ve been in the sustainability world for a whole eight months now and I feel like I learn 10 to 20 new things every day, so I’m really excited that you’re on because of your a wealth of knowledge. And you’re in California, right?
[06:40] Annie Davis: Yes. Our company is based in northern California. We’re in Sonoma County, so we’re in the San Francisco Bay area broadly, but we’re about an hour north. And I was working in CleanTech and selling biofuels, that was in San Francisco, but the area that we live in is actually … Where we’re based in and where my husband and my family and I live is wine country so it’s also a big agricultural hub in Irving, California, and so we’re in an area that is beautiful environmentally, but it’s also important about conservation and preservation to stay on point for the economics of the region because so much of the business in this area relies on agriculture and the health of the land.
[07:21] Amy Koonin: So, my question was going to be, where’s your favorite spot to camp in California?
[07:27] Annie Davis: Well, that’s a good question because feel like I do a lot of camping until three years ago when I had my son who’s now about three and I’ve only gone camping once in the past three years or so. But generally, anywhere along the coast. I love, love camping at Big Sur, it’s probably my favorite area yet. Beautiful place. So, have you been there? Scenic, very scenic landscape.
[07:52] Amy Koonin: I have not. It’s definitely on my to-do list. So you spoke a little when we were talking about what World Centric was about, the philanthropic component to the work. I know that there is now, obviously as it’s grown a lot more, that there’s a donation and discount portion of the business. What do you guys do to give back to the community?
How World Centric Gives Back
[08:11] Annie Davis: Yeah. So, initially our model was kind of flipped from what it is today. So the majority of what we did was giving back to the community in hosting speakers and film series and education around sustainability for actually our local community and the San Francisco Bay area and 14 years ago there was a lot less activity on that front. So now with our core business being, or core activity being the manufacture and sale of compostable products, we donate 25% of our profits every year to grassroots social and environmental organizations. So [inaudible 00:08:48] that has grown over time as we as a company have grown, but the types of projects that we fund are ones that are having a direct and a very measurable impact on either human lives, so it’s economic development. So for instance we fund the building of schools in Haiti or the prevention of malaria in that at-risk population in Sub-Saharan Africa. We also fund direct environmental impacts like the planting of trees and reforestation projects in areas of Latin America and southeast Asia.
[09:24] Annie Davis: And we have a very rigorous process that our company goes through for evaluating the recipients of our donations where we really seek measurable and attainable goals, but we’re trying to have both a direct impact in a short term, but also achieve systemic change. So investing in infrastructure capabilities in communities so that it’s not the whole, give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, it’s more teach a man to fish and he’ll fish for a lifetime.
[09:52] Amy Koonin: When I was at camp, that was always in the cafeteria. That’s a very nostalgic quote for me. So, let’s bring it back to basics. Before we get into kinds of in’s and out’s of World Centric. Like I said, I have not been in the sustainability realm that long. I certainly didn’t know the answers to the questions I’m about to ask you before I started working at Rubicon. And I do think that working in sustainability, it’s a very tight-knit community and we take the educational component for granted. Not everyone knows how bad off we are as an environment and as a society. So let’s break it down. Composting 101. What is it? How do we do it? And what is the impact? Why is it important?
[10:33] Annie Davis: Sure. So, I should probably start with, I guess, maybe the impact. So, there currently in the majority of the world and even more towards the United States, most of our waste goes to landfill. And when it goes to landfill, as Rubicon customers and subscribers to this channel are probably well aware, it just sits there for a very, very, very, very long time and there are many, many higher uses of those materials. And so compostable material is basically organic matter, material that is made from plants, and through a composting process, it can revert back to soil that then can be used again. It’s also material … So this is like food scraps or yard trimmings, any kind of waste from plants as well as the products that we make that are made from plants and so when they are trash, they are also waste from plants.
[11:29] Annie Davis: And so there’s certainly a number of higher uses of this material. Number one, we should be keeping it at a composting facility and out of landfills in the first place. So, we have food waste, try to donate that food [inaudible 00:11:41] and reuse it. Have it used until it’s not safe to use anymore. But the material that can be composted can then be used for soil to plant healthy plants. It also, when it’s in landfill, can produce methane gas, so it actually can be harmful to the environment not only as waste, but also for the impact that it can have on the atmosphere through the production of methane. So, the composting process is one where you basically get this material hot enough and wet enough that microorganisms and bacteria are able to eat away at it and process it and turn it back into soil. And this can happen in your backyard, and a lot of people have home composting piles in their backyard, but it can also happen at large scale facilities that are going to be like a large farm or a field or sometimes these facilities are sited next to landfills and so you’ll have a huge pad of land with many, many piles of compost happening at once.
[12:54] Annie Davis: There are products that are certified compostable products. The certification is a third-party certification that verifies they can turn back into soil when they are processed in a commercial composting facility. So, not in your backyard, but in a commercial facility and this is because in your backyard, the temperature in your home composting pile does not get high enough, it doesn’t get hot enough in there for these products to actually break down, where they can actually break down is in a large scale commercial composting facility. And this is actually one of the key reasons that we are partnered and we work with Rubicon Global, because through Rubicon’s network of haulers we’re able to connect our customers, who might be a restaurant or a university or a corporate campus that’s using our compostable products, with a commercial composting facility, with a facility that can process these materials.
[13:53] Amy Koonin: And that’s how they’re tested, right? That’s how y’all’s products are tested is through those large-scale standards?
[14:00] Annie Davis: Right. Well, they’re tested both in the real world at facilities but also through lab testing that’s done by a third party called the Biodegradable Products Institute, BPI. So that’s the certification for compostable products in the industry, and there’s a lot of confusion in the market about terms like compostable, biodegradable, what does it all mean? If you are a consumer or you are a business and you’re considering using compostable products, you’re interested in these kind of products, it’s really important to look for BPI certification because this is the gold standard for compostability. A lot of other types of products out there will claim, for instance, that they’re biodegradable, but biodegradable does not have certification attached to it and actually doesn’t really mean much because anything is biodegradable over enough time. A compostable certification has a time limit associated with it. So in order for something to be certified commercially compostable, it has to turn into soil in a commercial composting facility in under four months. So there’s a time limit to when it will compost.
[15:10] Annie Davis: A lot of times businesses or customers of ours will come to us and they will have already tried another type of, maybe like a competitor’s product that’s not certified and the experience that they have is that it doesn’t actually break down. It doesn’t actually turn into compost because it’s not held to a high enough standard.
[15:30] Amy Koonin: So how do you guys make the compostable products? I’m so curious about the product’s life cycle. How does it go from being a plant to being a fork that I’m using to eat two day old Chinese food in my apartment?
Producting Compostable Products
[15:45] Annie Davis: Right. Well, there’s a couple of different materials that we use and the production processes are different depending on the material. So for anything that looks like plastic, so it’s like a clear cup or a deli container and then for our cutlery, they’re literally from a plant-based plastic material that’s derived from corn. And that corn, we actually rather than manufacture, we purchase pellets of this plant-based plastic called PLA. That PLA stands for polylactic acid and it’s a plant-based polymer. And so we purchase these pellets from a company called Nature Works and that company is the one that actually converts sugars from the corn through a process called polymerization into the polylactic acid. And so we purchase these pellets and we melt them into a forming process called injection molding. We turn them into these cups or the cutlery that you use or deli containers. Did I mention it’s a pretty similar process to how any other plastic item is made, it’s just that that plastic comes from petroleum and the polymerization happens from oil that comes from fossil fuels as opposed to coming from sugars that come from a plant.
[17:14] Annie Davis: So, that’s one of our materials and then another material that we use for all our products that are plant fibrous, so that would be like plates and bowls and clamshell containers. Anything that looks not papery, but [crosstalk 00:17:30].
[17:29] Amy Koonin: You guys have hundreds of products, right?
[17:32] Annie Davis: Yeah, we have probably close to 300 now, between 250 and 300.
[17:38] Amy Koonin: That’s amazing.
[17:39] Annie Davis: But the fiber products, those are made from wheat straw and sugar cane, from those plants, and it’s a part of the plant that’s not used for food, but the stalk of the plant called the bagasse. And our factories take that bagasse, they basically pulp the material, turn it into something that’s very much like paper pulp and then they use molds to combine that paper pulp with water and then make like a slurry then it’s pressed in molds into the shape of various plates, bowls, and containers that you see.
[18:13] Annie Davis: So, those are two materials and then the third material is paper. So we do make coffee cups and bowls that are paper bowls, but instead of being like most coffee cups and bowls that if they’re going to hold anything and not leak, they are lined with plastic, like a petroleum-based plastic. So we line our paper bowls and our coffee cups with that same plant-based plastic I was describing earlier, PLA that’s derived from corn. And all the paper that we use is sustainably sourced paper. That differentiates from a sustainability perspective even our paper products from the traditional paper products on the market.
[18:51] Amy Koonin: And they look gorgeous. A lot of times when you think about plant-based products, when someone tells me that I’m going to eat plant-based pasta, it’s never as good as the real thing or what I’m expecting. It’s never what I’m expecting and I wish they had video conferencing for these podcasts because I’d show all of our listeners how beautiful and clean and professional all the World Centric stuff looks. I mean it looks legit.
Sustainable vs. Traditional Paper Products
[19:19] Annie Davis: Thank you. That’s really important too. It’s really important. We are competing in the market against these [inaudible 00:19:27] traditional paper products that have been there for decades and our products are always somewhat more expensive than their non-sustainable counterparts. And so, certainly environmental reasons are one of the core reasons that customers buy commercial products, but also we want to be able to compete and hopefully win on product performance and design. So it’s important that our products perform equally or better to a plastic or a styrofoam container, in many situations that they look nicer. For instance, the clamshell container that is made from plant-based fiber that has your logo on it is going to look a lot nicer and a lot classier than a white styrofoam container that has no branding and kind of has a cheap or inexpensive look to it.
[20:22] Amy Koonin: Totally. I completely agree. A lot of time on here I ask my guests, the subject matter experts, a lot of times I ask them predictions or to do a little trend forecasting and what they think is coming down the pipe in whatever their respective field is. And while I have you here, I really am super curious to know your thoughts on a current trend that I don’t think is going anywhere, but I think that if it keeps happening it’s going to make an impact whether that be positive or negative and it’s a subconscious action for a lot of people and then there are a lot of people that don’t even know better. But with food delivery services, Postmates, StoreDash, and Uber, which I frequent, they’re so convenient. A lot of them were started in California. I think they’re a fantastic alternative. How do we as the sustainability community spread the message, spread the gospel, across for people to opt out of using plasticware or to have restaurants offering these alternatives whether it be through those delivery services or if they’re picking up to go orders? Even if they don’t use it, it’s throw into the bag with the food regardless. So do we start with the service, like Uber, do we start with the restaurateur, or do we go right to the consumer?
[21:39] Annie Davis: Yeah, well, everything really happens when consumers who are like your voice is the loudest voice that these companies hear. They want to keep your business and they certainly want to do everything they can to please you and retain you. The number one would be either refusing the official service or just asking the question, “Do you offer a more sustainable option? Have you looked at it? Why not?” We’re seeing a lot of growth for our business in mobile food delivery because the packaging enhances the whole brand experience for those delivery services. With the packaging looking like they care. Onlooking, [inaudible 00:22:20] this beautiful food that hopefully it’s the safe sustainably grown and marketed and such and then if it’s packaged in just plastic or something that doesn’t look very nice then there hasn’t been a commitment made apart from the brand.
[22:32] Annie Davis: Then also I think that there’s an opportunity, we see this a lot that for the businesses that are making these more sustainable choices to communicate that to their customers, to explain why they made these choices, why they’ve shifted. Sometimes we’ve even seen businesses after they’ve switched from styrofoam coffee cups to one of our coffee cups, if it’s just for a cup of coffee, they might tack on an extra five cents to the cost of the coffee cup. So instead of paying $1.50 for the cup of coffee or $2.00, they’re paying $2.05, but then they’ll include communication to say, “We’ve increased our price and here’s why. We’re using this more sustainable cup. We believe it’s important to do so.” And it kind of includes the consumer in that choice or that action.
[23:15] Amy Koonin: That makes a lot of sense. I think that people are willing to pay more to do the right thing. We’re lucky that … I certainly know that millennials like myself are. We always are trying to look for the hippest, coolest, and best thing for the environment, which is why I work at Rubicon. I’d like to mention, before I started, I really was blind and I’d suffice to say I was a little ignorant to a lot of eco-conscious actions, a lot of organizations, and a lot of the movements that were going on in the world of sustainability. And we hear all these buzzwords working. Sustainability, like I said, eco-friendly, zero waste. Zero waste is one that comes up all the time. What does zero-waste really look like?
What Does Zero-Waste Look Like?
[23:59] Annie Davis: Yeah that’s a really good question and there’s actually not one real definition for the term zero-waste. But I think that at it’s core, it actually not at that standpoint of waste, but really at the standpoint of design. So it’s like designing products and services, designing our systems, designing our infrastructure, the goods that we make and infrastructure that we have to be as low an impact on the planet as possible, not just from a waste perspective, but also from an energy perspective, from an emissions perspective. And that’s what World Centric is an example of, is looking at literally the origin of the materials where the products start, the design of it, and designing it for something that can have a lower impact. But for something to be truly zero-waste, it can’t just be designed for that impact, it has to be connected to an infrastructure and a system where it can be kept out of landfill.
[24:55] Annie Davis: Now that’s why it’s so critical that Rubicon are doing the work that you all are doing to help consumers and to help businesses and institutions to find those alternate end of life options that use products that have been designed to be zero-waste, but may not always achieve their desired intended outcome.
[25:15] Amy Koonin: I mean this really is such a little love fest with us, just keep endorsing each other’s companies and products. And World Centric is a phenomenal example, here I go again, of a product that can help a small business get to the goal of zero-waste. So what advice do you have for a small business owner who wants to get their company to zero-waste? Where do they even start?
Zero Waste for Small Businesses
[25:37] Annie Davis: Yeah. Well, I would say one, the first place to start would be to look at all of the input, the material infixed in your business, all the goods that you’re purchasing, and look at where do you see waste? Where do you see waste in like how they’re packaged and the cartons that you receive and where they’re going at the end of their life. And just asking yourself a question, are there alternatives? Are there other ways to be structured? And generally for a small business, however you’re currently outsourcing your product, whether like in the case of ours, maybe you’re going to a restaurant depot or you have a paper products distributor, because the growth of sustainable products and services, your distributor likely is carrying some alternatives, but it’s up to you to ask the question of them to see what other options they can offer you and then once you have those more sustainable products, I would look at what are the disposable options for you.
[26:35] Annie Davis: If your hauler is only currently providing you with a trash can or recycle can, ask them about compost. Is composting a service that they offer? If they don’t offer it, why or why not? Maybe it’s just because there hasn’t been a demand from customers like you for that type of service and that may be something that they could do or would do if they knew that there would be that demand there.
[26:57] Amy Koonin: So it always boils down to the education and asking, because if you don’t ask, you’re not going to know.
[27:02] Annie Davis: That’s my advice.
[27:03] Amy Koonin: Okay, so now is my favorite portion of the show. I experimented around with these a few episodes ago and I got a lot of feedback about how now this should be a permanent fixture on The Town Haul. So, I’m going to fire off ten quick rapid-fire questions that really have nothing to do with the topics that we’ve covered, to get to know you. Is that okay?
[27:21] Annie Davis: Okay. Sure.
[27:23] Amy Koonin: All right. Just say the first thing that comes to your head. You ready?
[27:25] Annie Davis: Sure.
[27:26] Amy Koonin: All right. What is the last movie that you saw?
[27:28] Annie Davis: I haven’t seen a movie in way too long.
[27:31] Amy Koonin: What does your morning routine look like?
[27:33] Annie Davis: Crazy rushed to get my two-year-old out the door.
[27:36] Amy Koonin: What has been a highlight of your week thus far?
[27:46] Annie Davis: It’s actually potty training said two-year-old.
[27:46] Amy Koonin: Congratulations. That’s huge.
[27:46] Annie Davis: Yeah. Well, I wouldn’t say we’re all the way there, but we are 90% there. I have another baby coming in six weeks or so, so I’m under the gun.
[27:56] Amy Koonin: Wow. You can do it. What is the most beautiful place near where you live?
[28:01] Annie Davis: Oh, that’s tough. So many options. But I would say the Sonoma Coast.
[28:07] Amy Koonin: If you were a candy bar, what candy bar would you be and why?
[28:10] Annie Davis: Snickers because it has so many good things inside.
[28:15] Amy Koonin: What was your first job?
[28:15] Annie Davis: Oh, this is also interesting. My first job I ever got paid for was being a lifeguard, but my first job after college was being a labor union organizer for a union that represented immigrant janitors.
[28:29] Amy Koonin: That is so oddly specific. That’s amazing.
[28:32] Annie Davis: I know.
[28:34] Amy Koonin: What is your personal theme song?
[28:36] Annie Davis: We are the Champions.
[28:37] Amy Koonin: You’re on a deserted island and a helicopter drops down one food for you daily. What is one thing that you could eat every day for the rest of your life?
[28:46] Annie Davis: Snickers bars.
[28:46] Amy Koonin: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
[28:49] Annie Davis: Take a deep breath and try again.
[28:51] Amy Koonin: And what does success mean to you?
[28:54] Annie Davis: That has changed so much over the years. But for me, success now means just really having a positive impact on the world, the world around me, and when I was younger I thought about that on a very macro level and now as I am older and I have a family and I have children, I think about it on a more micro level. Just creating a really positive environment and positive experience for the people who I’m directly in contact with on a daily basis.
Conclusion & Goodbyes
[29:20] Amy Koonin: Well, you certainly made a positive impact on me and everybody today, Annie. Thank you so much for being here, for helping us learn a little bit more about composting and about an amazing company like World Centric and if I’m ever in California, I will call you and we will go camp at Big Sur.
[29:39] Annie Davis: Okay, that sounds great. Well, thank you so much for having me, Amy. It was really a pleasure speaking with you.
[29:44] Amy Koonin: Awesome. Thanks so much. Have a good night.