When a 30-foot juvenile sperm whale washed up on a Crescent City, California beach, with its stomach full of plastic garbage, Ellery West knew he had to do something to reduce the amount of single-use plastic used worldwide. He took action to innovate paper-based packaging for personal care products and founded Organic Essence and EcoVision Packaging.
The company, who's product packaging can be recycled in the paper stream, buried in soil, or simply tossed into a composter, has since won Green Packy and DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovation.
Read the Q&A with West below.
What was it like to see the whale that washed up on a Crescent City, CA beach with its stomach full of plastic?
Gail and I were traveling to town on the road that runs along the beach. Gail said: “That looks like a beached whale!” so we stopped and checked it out. Right there on the spot, both of us felt a deep sadness. Profound sounds trite, but it was deeply moving nonetheless. It was a week or two later when the biologists reported that she had starved to death with a stomach full of plastic.
Frankly, our reaction was surprise. There is so much plastic floating around that it can kill a whale, and if it can kill whales it can kill all of us. Probably by starvation too! It’s a valid symbol of what’s happening. Afterwards, when we became engaged with the issue, we learned that plastic is definitely poisoning us and all of life. I’m certain life will adapt, but it’s precarious for apex predators like us.
How long did it take to bring your paper-based products to market and what challenges did you face?
Our first paper package, the Eco Jar, took about four months to bring a finished product to market. The challenges were and still continue to be: barrier surfaces, films or coatings, that are totally food safe and don’t leak. Water resistance is the biggest challenge of all because water is such a basic engine of life, if a coating or film is water resistant, it doesn’t participate in the life cycle, and thus becomes less sustainable. Because of this, we have focused on grease resistance first. This dovetails well with USDA Organic because products without water don’t need mild poisons (aka ‘preservatives’) to keep the bacteria, fungus, and mold at bay.
What brands are using your packaging?
Because start-up volumes are small, cost is high. This has kept the big brands from adopting the packaging because they are under incredible price pressure. Many small brands here in the US and overseas use our packaging. There aren’t too many of us left who remember when plastic was new and expensive. It took a long time for the plastic industry to scale and overtake paper, glass, and metal packaging. We have a brand that sells our packaging called EcoVision Packaging.
What are the benefits of switching from plastic to paper packaging?
1. Products having oil or water are not tainted with chemicals that are known to leach from plastic packaging.
2. Genuine sustainability; paper participates in the life cycle and is endlessly renewable. Paper production has largely been optimized so it has become increasingly clean and easy on the environment.
3. Post consumer paper waste is the most recycled substance, far outpacing glass and aluminum recycling.
4. Widespread use of paper packaging will help reduce the need to produce toxic synthetic chemicals that the plastic industry uses.
5. Communication; it’s a great way communicate the love for life most of us have. For brands and consumers alike.
What motivates you to create sustainable packaging?
My work with sustainable packaging is driven by the need to meaningfully participate in supporting life. We have been given so much by receiving this life. There’s a lot of people who need products that come in packages. As long as we’re here, product packaging is a given. Increased use of rational packaging will impact everyone and just about every living thing positively.
What is your vision for the future of EcoVision?
Product packaging is a huge, mature, built-out industry. The EcoVision brand is a tiny harbinger but it is not alone. I see it will inspire those who are open to the principles of life. If it catches the notice of the big players and informs them that there is potential for genuine sustainability, that would be awesome. A lot of people are focused on cleaning up humanity’s product packaging, we’re honored to be on the side of life and cooperation.
I see two major forces animating our species. The first is ‘law of the jungle’ – red in tooth and claw – and the second is cooperation. Poisoning your customers and trashing the environment with disposable plastic is shortsighted self-interest, greedy and easy. We can’t claim ignorance now the facts are coming in. Over time, pretending disposable plastic is safe will become untenable. Human success is not just hands or brains. It’s cooperation. But now we have become so powerful, we must cooperate with all life... From the small life we can’t see to the big whales plying the seas.
Thank you, Ellery West!