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Q&A: Julie Corbett, founder and CEO, Ecologic Brands

Q&A: Julie Corbett, founder and CEO, Ecologic Brands

Posting in Design

By marrying two unlikely partners -- a Canadian milk pouch and a fiber iPhone tray -- Ecologic Brands created sustainable packaging that uses 70 percent less plastic than the alternatives.

There's a reason bottles for laundry detergent and shampoo and cranberry juice are made from plastic. While the liquid inside would turn a paper container into a wilted mess, plastic remains rigid. But by marrying two unlikely partners -- a Canadian milk pouch and a fiber iPhone tray -- Julie Corbett and her Ecologic Brands created sustainable packaging that uses 70 percent less plastic than the alternatives.

The final product: an outer shell made from 100 percent recycled material with an inner plastic pouch that is removable and recyclable. Corbett says every aspect of her product -- from the closed-loop manufacturing process to the bottle's compostable shell -- is better for the environment. Just a few years after the company launched, its distinctive bottles are now in more than 7,000 stores across the U.S. and Canada thanks to a partnership with Seventh Generation. I spoke with Corbett last week. Below are excerpts from our interview.

How did a Canadian milk pouch and an iPhone tray lead you to develop packaging made from cardboard and old newspapers?

What made me think about those two things were my two daughters. Their school started a waste-free lunch program. Each classroom would weigh their trash at the end of the day. The classroom with the least trash got an ice cream party. It got to the point where I had to peel the banana before my daughter would go to school. This process makes you very aware of what you throw away. Packaging was the one thing I felt I had no choice around. I could choose to minimize what we consumed, but there was no way to buy products that helped me minimize waste.

I come out of the investment world. One of the companies we were looking into made a smoothie. When we met with their marketing team, they were estimating a small volume for the first year of 14 million bottles. I almost fell off my chair. The first thing that came to my mind was that these 14 million bottles would be going to landfills. I learned that 14 million was a drop in the bucket compared to the units sold by other brands. No wonder we have such an issue on our hands.

If you could create a more sustainable bottle, you have a great opportunity to make a difference. What would something like that look like? Because paper is a natural, fiber-based product, you only have to wet it to convert it quickly and easily. I thought about making a bottle out of paper. But if you coat paper with plastic, you can't recycle it anymore. The Canadian milk pouch is such a minimalist way to deliver a high-frequency purchase item. Then I got my iPhone for work and when I opened up the package I saw the insert made out of molded fiber. It was so gorgeous. To see paper with curves is something fairly new. I'd done enough work to know I could make a bottle of this material. The question was: How do you waterproof it? The problem with the milk pouch is it's not resealable. My quest was about modifying a Canadian milk pouch to make it recyclable, which meant no laminates, and marry it to the bottle.

How did your background in economics and investment help you to develop this idea and start your company?

In investments, you're exposed to different industries and ideas. You know a little about a lot. You have a broad perspective on how things fit together. I've learned how businesses work and what makes businesses successful. The investment industry is full of critical thinkers.

When I went back to work after staying at home with my kids, I realized I didn't like the investment industry anymore. This bottle thing kind of obsessed me. My old partner and the founder of the company became my first investor. Some of my colleagues were my early investors. Friends invested in me and I got that first $500,000 I needed to get this company off the ground.

Sometimes design is sacrificed in the name of sustainability. How important was the design of the packaging to you?

Design has everything to do with what we're about. People like to be sustainable, but they don't want to compromise form and functionality. When you're a packaging company, you have to be able to transcend different markets. I have to have a product that speaks to consumers no matter who they are -- even if they're not sustainability-minded. That's how I make a difference. Design had everything to do with it, from gripability to comfort on the bottle. But then you have to be able to manufacture it. We've come up with the right combo.

You use LDPE plastic to make each bottle's inside pouch, but many curbside recycling systems don't accept LDPE. How does that square with your mission?

If you go to any grocery store in North America now, they have to collect plastic bags. The pouch is accepted at grocery stores because it's the same plastic. There's absolutely a stream for it. Many curbside systems don't recycle pouches or bags yet. That's probably because most pouches have laminate structures in them that aren't recyclable. Everybody but the Ecologic pouch is not recyclable. That is a challenge. We contend with it because we're early. My hope is that our quest to make a non-laminated pouch will change the pouching industry. That's the biggest Achilles' heel in pouching. If the industry followed up, you'd have more pouches that were recyclable. Then curbside systems would pick them up.

Most communities can't recycle detergent bottles anyway. It's about baby steps. We could have used a laminated pouch. It would have been a lot easier and less expensive. But we believe very much that the industry will eventually hear us out.

How does your product compete with plastic, cost-wise?

We're not the scale plastic is. It's been around for decades. You can manufacture a plastic bottle so fast you can't see it. We're not at that speed or efficiency yet, but we're getting there. We have to scale. With scale, price comes down. We know that with scale we can manufacture this bottle at whatever it costs to manufacture regular plastic bottles. Recycled paper can be bought for about $175 per ton. With plastic you're looking at up to $2,000 per ton. Recycled paper is prolific and inexpensive. For us to drive our costs down is about scale. Now it's more expensive and that obviously translates to the consumer. But I don't want it to be a premium package for long. The more people adopt, the more the price will come down.

What's next for Ecologic Brands?

You're going to start seeing this bottle in nutraceuticals, in wine, in personal care products. It will be a lot more than just laundry. A lot of this will be happening in the last part of the year. Its versatility will be exciting. We're going to be in multiple categories.

Photo, top: Julie Corbett

Photo, bottom: Ecologic Brands bottle

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure