Rising up meet to consumer demand for more eco-friendly products, the biomass solutions company Genera Energy has procured an investment of more than $118 million to produce compostable food service items from locally grown grasses.
The products will provide sustainable alternatives to plastics and polystyrene, including plates, bowls, takeout containers and packaging materials made at its new manufacturing plant in Vonore, Tennessee. The fibers are also used to make cup stock, towels, tissues and other paper products.
This will make Genera’s earthable® fibers the largest solution yet for sustainable food-grade packaging in the U.S., according to the company. At the same time, the group says the investment will help boost the rural economy by working with local farmers and providing 80 new jobs initially.
The ag-based pulp itself is grown sustainably, as confirmed by national laboratories and university research.
Genera has spent more than a decade developing the most eco-friendly agricultural supply chain possible, says scientist Sam Jackson, vice president of business development, earning them recognition at the Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s 54th Annual Conservation Achievement Awards.
“Our company is focused on working with farmers to sustainably produce products that are useful to our local, regional and national communities,” says CEO Kelly Tiller in a statement. “From the farm to our finished products, we work hard to ensure that we contribute positively to the regional agricultural community, soil and water health and wildlife habitat.”
The fiber is derived from switchgrass, biomass sorghum and wheat straw, grown without pesticides in low density patches that are currently unused within a mosaic of other crops.
The crops’ contribution to biodiversity goes beyond their extension of diverse land uses. Biomass sorghum is an annual that can be planted each year. Switchgrass is perennial and will keep growing annually for more than 20 years, offering reduced soil disturbance, improved wildlife habitat, and enhanced carbon sequestration, says Jackson.
Switchgrass has significant benefits to wildlife, water quality and soil health, he adds.
“Particularly, grassland songbirds, ground nesting birds like quail and turkey, and many small mammals thrive in switchgrass fields. Additionally, the deep-rooted plant improves soil structure by adding to the soil carbon base and increasing aeration and water movement in the soil.”
Wheat grass, he says, can also provide added benefits of soil stabilization, nutrient management and weed control.
The grasses have high yields, similar to hemp, and are grown considerably quicker and without the harsh chemicals used for traditional wood pulping.
The company’s ag fiber pulping employs a simpler mechanical process using mild chemistry, and the technology requires considerably less water and energy, recycling the processed water.
“The results are much more environmentally-friendly pulps characterized by long-clean fibers absent of rough edges,” they say, with all major industry standards (TAPPI) tests confirming they meet or exceed the features of commercially available non-wood pulps.
Initial production is expected to produce 6.5 tons per day of thermoformed fiber products and expand to a maximum capacity of 45 tons per day. The facility expects they will be ready for the marketplace in 2020.