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In the U.S., milk typically comes in plastic or glass bottles or cartons. But earlier this month, Straus Family Creamery put new kind of bottle in the milk case, one that combines a stiff paper shell with a thin plastic pouch inside.

Julie Corbett, founder of Ecologic Brands, the company that developed the packaging, spoke with GreenBiz Radio about the inspiration behind the package and how they'll know if it's successful both in protecting milk and drawing in customers.

Jonathan Bardelline: First off could you give me a little background on how Ecologic Brands came about?

Julie Corbett: I come out of the investment industry. I worked for, actually, an Oakland-based investment manager for many, many years. I didn’t know much about packaging. I didn’t know much about the beverage world in general. I just dealt  with my clients and looking at different types of investments for them.  
Basically in September of 2008 we were just at a time when, as a family, we were really trying to reduce the amount of waste that we consume in our house, and a lot of that was targeted towards minimizing the amount of plastic bottles that we buy for ourselves in water or soft drinks or juices.
This investment opportunity came about in our firm, and it was basically a beverage company that was looking very appealing. So for the first time I was exposed to a little bit about beverage companies and how they push their product through. And this beverage company was about to launch a new drink in the supermarket, and this new drink in the supermarket which had never been launched, was kind of a smoothie-like thing.

And when they were talking about the volume sales that they were expecting, I was completely floored that a very small brand with very little national reach could talk in terms of tens and hundreds of millions of bottles a year. And it really got me thinking like, if this small brand expects to sell this much, how much are these bigger brands [selling]. It was very eye-opening to me, and I realized, “My goodness, there lies the problem.  I mean there’s hundreds and hundreds of brands like this. No wonder we have such a problem on our hands.”
As a consumer, when you start making different choices, it’s one thing to make different choices, but it’s another thing to think about solutions. So for some reason in my mind I just was completely perplexed by what would be the solution. How do we come about solutions? So I kind of embarked on a personal journey to really understand materials and all that stuff to understand what can be options.

And the reality is is that everybody’s looking for the biodegradable plastics, everybody’s trying to enhance the recycling stream, but in the end we’re still making hundreds of billions of bottles a year. And most of them aren’t getting to where they need to go, and that’s in the recycling bin or being recycled. I started looking at these biodegradable plastics, and I realized they weren’t really the magic bullet because they’re so controversial because they don’t really biodegrade unless they’re in industrial composting, and there’s very few facilities in the United States who actually do industrial compost.

I really thought about paper, and if you would think through the recycling stream, you think that in the end paper is probably the most successfully recycled material in the United States, Canada and pretty much all over the world. It inherently is so easy to recycle because it’s a fiber-based product, and all the energy is really put into place in trying to make virgin paper because you’re cutting trees and you have to make pulp to make paper.  
But once that process has been done, recreating paper out of waste paper is actually fairly easy and actually carbon minimizing. Since it’s such a successful recycled material and the infrastructure is there pretty much everywhere in the United States, I started thinking, well, what about a paper bottle made out of recycled material, but that’s not so easy.

It took an iPhone, when I ordered my new iPhone, to make me realize there was a huge advancement. When I looked at the tray inside my iPhone, it was made out of molded fiber. I knew that they took molded fiber and they made egg cartons out of it. We’re all very familiar with that. But I didn’t realize how evolved that technology had become and how beautiful. It really gave me the first idea of thinking, “Okay. Well, what if you molded, just like this tray in my iPhone, you molded this fiber, and if the technology was there, into a bottle?”

JB: Now, had you seen similar bottles to this before?

JC: No, I hadn’t.

JB: We’ve seen at least a couple. They’re small examples, but we’ve seen them elsewhere in the U.K.

JC: Yeah. I think you’re talking about GreenBottle, and no, I haven’t. At that point I did not actually, to be honest with you. And also just a caveat, being Canadian I drank my whole life, and like every Canadian, drank milk out of milk pouches, where you buy a milk pouch and you bring it home and you put it in a permanent container at home.  These milk pouches are the most efficient, the greenest way to actually manufacture and package milk compared to rigid containers. And they're about four grams of polyethylene versus about 56 grams of plastic used in a regular milk jug, so it’s super minimizing, and Canadians have adapted to this and have been doing it for 20, 30 years. Proven, proven technology.
Countries like Israel, the U.K., South America, Africa. Africa bottles water in these pouches. This is what I’m familiar with, and I always wondered why there were no American milk pouches. Actually, it first started with origami. I thought if you created a shell by bending paper and folding paper and then having the thin bladder, a thin pouch inside, the Canadian milk pouch inside. So you have your pouch that keeps the material in and keeps it kind of clean and sanitary and aseptic and then you have this shell that provides structure so it could sit upright and you could pour from.