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Terravive makes compostable, biodegradable food containers, cutlery, cups, plates and straws… all in the United States.
Before even completing her first year of studies at Washington and Lee University, Richmond, Virginia native Julianna Keeling knew her professional career path would eventually lead to work in environmental preservation.
A lover of nature and the outdoors, Keeling had been contemplating a solution to the plight of man-made waste found on both land and sea since she was a high school student.
She had her future educational commitments, but Keeling was anxious to get a jump start on creating a business that would benefit, and not harm, the world’s natural resources.
So, in 2015, while still a college freshman, Keeling started Terravive, a company dedicated to creating biodegradable and compostable products. The products, which include many of the “to-go” containers used by so many restaurants, perform like the old-school plastic and Styrofoam that today clog our landfills. The difference is that Terravive containers, when disposed of, break down like plants.
Terravive is a Latin derivative that means “the Earth sustains itself.” That has certainly been the mantra of Keeling and business partner Joe Swider. It’s believed that plastic can take anywhere from 500 to 1000 years to decompose, while creating a host of environmental problems in the process.
On the other hand, most Terravive products decompose in 90 days or less in a residential or industrial compost pile, ocean, river or soil. If a Terravive product is lying in the dirt of your backyard, it may take anywhere from three to six months to completely break down.
Keeling has been working at developing this product line for a lot longer than that.
After her first year of college, Keeling took a year sabbatical from Washington and Lee and relocated to San Francisco where she studied with renowned researchers learning the basics of manufacturing biodegradable and sustainable products.
“On the innovation side it was really incredible because of the vibrant technology ecosystem there,” Keeling said. “I was able to bring so much knowledge back to Washington and Lee with me.”
Keeling completed her studies and graduated with degrees in chemistry and environmental studies in 2019, gaining a vast knowledge of material science.
It was shortly after graduation that Keeling met Swider, a former Navy officer and graduate of the Virginia Military Institute – located immediately next to Washington and Lee’s campus in Lexington – who had started several technology companies. Swider offered to help her with Terravive, and during their 3 ½ year partnership business has rapidly accelerated.
“When we really locked into the business model about 3 ½ years ago, we have been growing a couple thousand percent each year and we expect that to continue,” said Swider.
Keeling is the founder, majority-owner and CEO of Terravive, while Swider is the Chief Operating Officer. Since going into business together, the pair have been constantly travelling the country to increase their client base and visit the 16 manufacturing facilities they have contracted with to manufacture their disposable products.
Terravive does not sell its products directly to consumers unless, of course, you have an order of monumental size. Terravive is a business-to-business company selling to large corporations, universities, food service companies, stadiums, federal and state governments and big box and regional retail.
The company’s manufacturing partners produce its biodegradable tableware such as plates, bowls, cutlery, cups and lids, take-out containers, straws, bags and film.
“We make a lot of those containers from sugar cane, corn and other fiber that is grown in the United States,” Keeling said. “About 99% of those take-out container products are plastic and 99% of them are made in China. So what is going on is those products are made in China due to a lot of different factors like currency manipulation but also just the fact that there is dumping going on. We’ve seen these products sold here at artificially low prices and that is less expensive than what it would take to just pay for the shipping. That’s not even taking into consideration the cost of the actual products.
“So the products are artificially cheap, which is putting a ton of American workers out of business and out of work. We are really focused on producing high-quality, compostable, biodegradable take-out type products that are all made in the U.S. So we are driving good green technical jobs here in the U.S. and providing an opportunity to really capitalize on the green economy.”
Terravive was built through partnerships with manufacturing facilities across America and all products are built to Terravive specifications. Terravive is a woman, veteran and minority-owned company that Keeling and Swider are committed to keeping American made.
“We directly employ about 10 people and we have an amazing research and development team in Pennsylvania,” Swider said. “But we have a whole series of contract employees – 1099 workers – and we have different relationships with our manufacturing locations, so it is really about 1,000 people or so making our products daily across the country.”
Fighting Against Plastic Pollution by Winning Market Share
In addition to keeping Terravive products made in the U.S., Keeling and Swider feel their biodegradable product is not only the highest quality on the market but also the safest. When typical plastics found in the oceans or landfills finally do start to break down, they create microplastics.
“Traditional plastic takes hundreds or thousands of years to break down, and in the process it just starts getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” said Keeling. “They become microplastics, which are basically invisible to the human eye and so small you can drink it in water, it is in food, you breathe it in the air.”
Swider has done research on microplastics and cites one alarming study.
“Throughout our lifetime, each human ingests about 44 pounds of plastic from when you are a baby until you die,” Swider said. “You eat 44 pounds of plastic without knowing it. Think of the impact of that on your immune system, on your overall body functions. It has long term affects and who knows what illnesses or cancers this can cause among humans?”
Many states and municipalities have passed laws banning the use of the plastics and Styrofoam, and chances are you no longer hear “paper or plastic?” in your grocery store checkout line. The Earth is overrun with plastics and other waste materials that may take hundreds of years to disintegrate.
But the good news is that change has been slowly coming, and Swider says the younger generation of Americans are taking this problem far more seriously than their parents.
“What we have seen in the last year or two is the price of Chinese imports are going up a lot because they just can’t produce the product,” Swider said. “We have certain clients of ours that tell us even with Chinese products, we are only a couple of percentage points more expensive.
“So that being said, we’re now starting to get price competitive with some of the products and what is actually going on from a market standpoint is that anyone under 30 years old believes in some sort of sustainability, including their environment. It’s the way younger folks are brought up in high school and college and people realize just how much pollution is being dumped into their environment.
“We know a certain number of people that look favorably on those restaurants that are using products like ours. They don’t go to the restaurants that are using plastic or Styrofoam or just blatantly polluting the environment. What’s more damaging to a restaurant owner than paying 2% more for a product is not having customers come in. We see a massive flood of people under the age of 30 really demanding this from the places where they do business.”
All Terravive products are FDA-approved and have ISO and SQF certifications. They are made from plant materials that are certified to break down in three to six months in a compost or your backyard. In the ocean, it will take a little bit longer than that but not more than 12 months.
“The U.S. used to send all of its trash to China and China would then either incinerate it or send a lot of it to one of the poorer countries. And those poorer countries would just release a lot of it into the ocean which would contribute to the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ which if you are not aware is a huge island of floating plastic trash the twice the size of Texas.”
There are not a lot of American players in the compostable products market. Swider estimates that between 80% and 90% of biodegradable and compostable items also come from China, but as far as quality Terravive is the market’s leader, according to Keeling.
“We and our customers believe that our products are the best value because they are high quality,” Keeling said. “It doesn’t fall apart. I’m sure you’ve used a paper straw before. Most people hate paper straws. It is a horrible mouth-feel experience, they fall apart and can ruin whatever drink you are having.
“We have straws that literally perform and look just like a plastic version, but are fully biodegradable. They are certified non-toxic, but still are very durable. It’s kind of the same across all of our products: High quality, certified to be compostable and environmentally friendly and fully made in the U.S. Most other companies are not able to check off all of those boxes.”