Food Tech logo with Episode 13: Douglas Horne

Episode 13: Douglas Horne

Douglas Horne is the founder and CEO of Evanesce, a sustainable packaging company. Horne wants to create a circular economy where plant-based, sustainable packaging is composted and turned back into soil, what he calls a dirt-to-dirt economy. We talk about the challenges of moving toward more sustainable packaging and his skepticism about the recycling movement. He dives into the different types of sustainable materials and discusses why major brands are moving toward sustainable packaging. He also offers advice for operators who want to implement sustainable packaging.

Episode transcription 

James: Welcome to the show today, Doug. How are you doing? 

Douglas: I’m great. Thanks for having me.

James: Yeah. Talk a little bit about your background in the founding of Evanesce.

Douglas: Sure. So Evanesce was founded a few years ago at this point in 2016. And prior to that, I was a deputy speaker and elected as a member of the legislature in British Columbia, which is sort of like a state position in Canada. And I sat on a number of committees, including British Columbia’s representative of the Council of State Governments, and did a lot of things on environmental committees and things to do with sustainability. So when I left politics, I had been approached by this group of people that had this fantastic technology. And so I went back to them and they were still trying to commercialize it and make things happen. And so I acquired the technology and continued to work with them. And we’re now in the process of bringing it to market. And we’re very, very excited about about that technology. In the interim, I’ve also acquired some additional rights in North America to some biopolymers. And so, you know, we have a great suite of products that are all plant-based, all very, very good for the environment and all very economically sound as well, which I think is very, very important.

James: Now, sustainable packaging can be a confusing topic for a lot of people. Can you talk a little bit about the different ways that sustainable packaging can be put together, the different types of products that are used?

Douglas: Sure. You’re exactly right. You know, it is a confusing, confusing topic for many. And the other issue that we face is so many jurisdictions and so many people sort of look at sustainable packaging as recycling. And one of the big issues that we’ve faced over many, many years now is we’ve continued to sort of recycle things and look for things that are recyclable. But of the things that are recyclable today, only about 10% of them actually get recycled and the vast majority of them go into our landfills. And, you know, I think Einstein once said to continue to do things the way we did them and expect different results is the definition of insanity. And in dealing with these things, oftentimes we continue to get different results by doing the same thing, unfortunately. And so, you know, there’s a number of different ways to deal with things and sort of, you know, the right material for the right opportunity and the right application, I think is the most important thing. So, you know, there’s many materials that are easy to recycle, like, you know, aluminum or paper has done very, very well. You know, plastics in some form are good, but knowing which ones are good and which ones are bad is very, very difficult, you know. And then I think one of the things, especially for food services items, which is where we concentrate heavily, is composting. And I think it as a methodology of dealing with waste that makes a lot more sense because, you know, when you’ve got the French fries or the half a burger or, you know, the other food waste that’s sitting on the plate or sitting in a cup or whatever in recycling, that’s considered contamination and often makes their processes very, very difficult. You know, when it’s all organic material, it all goes into a big pile and decomposes. It makes it very, very easy. So having a lot of these food services items being compostable, I think really, really helps the process. We need to divert more food waste from landfills to compost piles and making certain that we recycle this from dirt to dirt, as we always say. So basically making sure that infrastructure is there is really, really key and really, really important. You know, one of the things as well with compostable packaging that I think really confuses people is the comment that’s an industrial compostable over backyard compost. Well, you know, to be honest, we really don’t want everyone having a bucket in their backyard and doing compost. You know, we want these in commercial type facilities and properly and, you know, the greenhouse gases that are created from the processes of decomposition to be properly managed, these are very, very important aspects. And so we want it done properly. We want it done in a commercial facility. And it’s funny because, you know, people go and they talk about industrial compostable. They sort of think there’s some sort of big machine or something. All industrial compostable means is it’s a bigger pile. It’s you know, it’s a huge pile of them. It. Ariel. It’s sitting there and the compost things you only really need two things sunshine, which creates heat and water, which creates moisture and then natural microbial. Basically, break down the materials like they do everywhere else. If something falls on the ground, that’s the same process that happens to everything as it decomposes. So it’s a very natural process. It’s something that happens all the time. It’s something that’s happened for centuries. And so basically a circular economy that starts with dirt and ends with dirt is really what we all need to achieve, and it’s something that really makes the whole thing work.

James: Well, I know like kind of starting in the late seventies and early eighties, you know, the idea was that recycling was the answer. Why do you think recycling has failed as an overall project?

Douglas: Well, as I say, the difficulty has been contamination, knowing what the things are and how really to, quote, recycle them. One of the things with plastic that’s really caused a big problem as well is once you have the plastic recycled, there really hasn’t been much of a market for it because virgin plastic is so cheap and so much easier to use the recycled plastic. So, you know, they’re trying to sort of use more recycled plastic in what they’re doing. But because virgin plastic is so cheap in the first place and because of the cost and the energy expended and everything else, you know, it’s interesting right now, I was at a conference the other day and we were talking about recycling and everyone, you know, one of the people stood up and says, you know, Doug, I’m going to challenge you on that fact that recycling doesn’t work. And I said, Well, okay. And they said, well, you know, more and more things are being recycled. More and more things are happening. I said, Well, you know, if recycling really is a process that works so well, why are companies like Dow right now spending billions of dollars trying to come up with ways of chemically recycling things? And of course, they don’t have an answer for that. The reason for that is that mechanical recycling, what we do right now just doesn’t work. And so, you know, they’re looking at ways that they can make the process work. But quite frankly, at this point, they just don’t have them. And when you’re looking at spending billions of dollars to try to find solutions, especially as I talked about on the food services side, when you have compostable options out there, that literally the way that you treat them, the way that you manage those, it’s been the same way for hundreds and hundreds of years through natural decomposition. It just makes so much more sense. And this is really a lot of what we need to do is go back to natural elements, go back to the way things were, and it’s much healthier and much better for our planet for the long run.

James: I’ve read a lot about your writings and interviews, you talk a lot about the circular economy. I assume that saying you’re talking about producing materials out of fiber or starch or whatever, and then it breaks down faster than plastic. Is that correct?

Douglas: Yeah, no. All of our materials are made out of agricultural byproducts. So whether that’s potato starch or corn starch or tapioca starch, potato starch, for example, is made in the process of making potato chips. Everyone eats potato chips. Well, you know, when you take a potato when you put it in the water after you cut it up and you know, the water all turns white, well, that’s because there’s potato starch in that water. The same thing for other products like corn starch, and that there’s different qualities of corn starch. You know, some of the corn starch is food grade and, you know, some of it. And then the way that it’s produced is less grade. And those lower grades of corn starch. Pea starch is actually a thing that we use a lot of right now. Most of the plant-based proteins that are created right now, some of the vegan options and those types of things are produced using peas as the protein source. And in the process of making those types of food items, there’s pea starch created. So it’s taking those byproducts of production of food. And rather than having those things go to waste and be basically landfilled or however you deal with them, it’s using those types of materials. And on the fiber side, we use things like the chaff and that of wheat or corncobs, for example, or pea pods. You know, there’s all of these fibers that are out there that can be used and have some opportunity. So we take these for our products and we use them to create packaging material. And so you’ve got very natural products that are out there and decompose normally. Anyways, we take and we bake it much like a cookie. So it’s a molded product and then when it’s end of life and once you’ve used it as a food service tray or as a meat tray or, you know, to have your lunch on or however you use it can be used for internal packaging. You know, there’s many different things that it can be used for. You know, it can go back into a compost and go back to dirt. So that’s why I always say with the circular economy, my circular economy starts with dirt and ends with dirt. And there’s others that are very into recycling. You know, oftentimes their circular economy begins with plastic and ends with plastic. And I really don’t see that as terribly sustainable. I think that. We need to go from the absolute beginning to the absolute end, and that is dirt to dirt. And that’s really where I see things and where I see things needing to progress and really important to get there. Because when you have all these things that are all natural to start with, you don’t have to worry about all of the chemicals and those types of things that we’re getting into our body. You know, there was a study that was recently done on Microplastics that shows that microplastics in people’s bloodstream, in snow, in the Antarctic now and everything else. You know, it’s a real worry. And so we need to get back to things that that are more healthy. We’ve got enough things around us that aren’t. And so really trying to change that trend is important, I think, for everyone.

James: I mean, I think the data shows the public supports sustainable packaging, but I think a lot of restaurant owners are a little hesitant to use sustainable packaging for takeout and carry out. That sort of thing. What kind of conversations do you have or how do you approach sustainable packaging with restaurants?

Douglas: Well, I think one of the main concerns that many have is cost, and it’s one of the things that’s really, really fundamental to our company and what we do, and that is to keep costs down. I’ve been to conventions and conferences and I’ve seen new products that were really, really cool. But the difficulty is they were like 20, 30, 40 times what traditional packaging was? Well, people, you know, they love that type of thing. It’s cool technology, but they’re just not going to pay 30 times what they paid before. So that’s one of the things with our product that I think is exciting is, well, it’s not exactly the same, you know, it’s not even double what traditional packaging was. And that’s really where we need to get to solutions that are cost-effective. And I think it’s really one of the big impediments that people have seen in the industry. And, you know, and the difficulty that many have as well is they’ve sort of said, well, you know, what’s $0.01 or $0.02 or $0.05 or $0.10? Well, it’s nothing when you’re buying one of something, but when you’re buying billions of them, it’s a huge amount of money. And so, you know, we need to be economically conscious and we need to understand the costs of these things, but we need to understand the full cost of them as well. One of the other aspects to it is there is a cost to plastic that’s not factored in and we need to make sure that that’s fully understood and factored into the price as well. So that we’re comparing apples to apples.

James: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I think one of the things that restaurant owners want to know when they use sustainable packaging is that the food is good. You know, if they’re having a hot dish, it will stay warm. Do you think sustainable packaging can create a product that provides the type of service that restaurant owners?

Douglas: Need, insulation properties and all of those types of things. No, you’re exactly right. You know, one of the difficulties is a lot of the sustainable compostable packaging that’s out there right now is thermal form fiber, which is paper-thin, that uses engineering and design techniques to basically make it a little bit more rigid. But it’s still not all that rigid. You’re right. It doesn’t really have a lot of, you know, insulating thermal properties that are similar to what, you know, Styrofoam would have. For example. I think that’s one of the really exciting things about our product is our product really does look and feel like traditional Styrofoam. And as such, it’s a little bit more rigid. So it’s actually a little bit better that way. It doesn’t flex as much. So if you’ve got some food orders, that actually holds it a little bit better. But the other aspect to it is it’s got air in it and it has an insulating property to it that does allow to keep the food warm for a period of time. So I think these things are, you know, the performance of the packaging is important. And I think you’re exactly right. Finding something that replicates what they’re used to is really, really key. And, you know, I think with our new with our menu material, it’s one of the things that we are very excited about is the fact that we can replicate a lot of these things that form fiber paper type products just can’t. And so, you know, it’s one of the things that’s missing in the market. And I think it’s one of the things that we’re excited about getting out there very shortly.

James: Now, do you have an example of a food manufacturer or a restaurant that has successfully made the transition from traditional packaging to sustainable packaging?

Douglas: Well, I think there’s a lot that certainly has tried. And do you know, obviously, you know, we do a lot of work with Whole Foods. They were a very early adopter on the grocery side, Cactus Club here in Canada, in the United States, there’s a number that are slowly transitioning over. You know, you look at Dunkin Donuts, for example. One of the things that we also make out of our biopolymers is straws and other food service items. You know, a lot of restaurants, you know, large restaurants are moving over to more sustainable options. You know, a lot have moved over to like paper straws, for example. And when we just sort of look at straws and other food services items and the difficulty with paper is that it’s, you know, in the process of pulping and everything else, you’ve got some pretty nasty chemicals in there. The different. Paper straws are abundant. They’re certainly better than plastic straws. But quite frankly, they dissolve in your drink in many cases, in the process of dissolving your drink. You don’t know what chemicals it’s putting into your drink and into your mouth. And the fact anyone I see people when they drink out of paper straws and it actually scares me because, you know, you think of that straw dissolving in their drink. You think what’s in it? You’re going like, ‘Oh my God.’ And this is one of the difficulties that I think we face oftentimes we make these knee-jerk reactions that we sort of say, hey, well, you know, there was the image of the turtle with the plastic straw on its nose. Let’s all move over to paper straws because that won’t do that anymore. You know, the fact of the matter is, whether it’s a paper straw or a plastic straw or one of our straws that are made out of cornstarch, we don’t want it in the ocean anyways. People need to be good and properly dispose of these things. But that being said, you know, making things that have natural things like our straws that are made out of cornstarch, it looks and feels like a plastic straw. It acts like a plastic straw. Basically, it’s made out of cornstarch. So you know what it’s done. It’s fully compostable. It goes back and it creates dirt. And, you know, it doesn’t have any of the chemicals that a paper straw would have in it. So it’s those types of things. You know, the difficulty is capacity. We don’t have the capacity to sort of supply the entire industry. We’re continuing to build that capacity. Many of those that are in our industry are continuing to build capacity. As capacity grows, I think more will be able to adopt it. But, you know, we are seeing a lot of early adopters, a lot of people that really think and I think customers themselves as well, they really, really care deeply and they like to see it. But as I said earlier, they don’t want to pay a lot for it. So they like to see it, but they don’t want to pay for it. So you need to find solutions that are affordable, economically, make sense, perform the way you want them to and make your customers feel good. And I think that’s one of the real keys. And one of the other difficulties I think we face, certainly in the restaurant industry is a lot of greenwashing. There’s a lot of product that comes out of China that says green this or green that. In reality, it’s not green at all. And quite frankly, many people are paying a premium for it. And I think we need to watch that as well. If we’re going to make a commitment to the environment, we need to make sure that we’re doing the right thing, not just buying something that’s sort of branded. It seems a little bit better. And so I think there’s a lot of options that are becoming more and more, more readily available. And I see I do see a lot of traction. We were just at the National Restaurant Show a couple of weeks ago. And the reaction that we got, you know, the number of people and, you know, large chain restaurants, small restaurants that came through, saw some of the products we had, saw some of the technology that’s sort of now coming to market. A lot of them got very excited about the options that are coming and will be available. And I think that we’ll see more and more of that. And I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s it’s what consumers are looking for. And it’s really what, you know, overall we need for the world as we move forward.

James: Now, if you are a restaurant and you are considering going to more sustainable packaging within your operation, what kind of questions would you start asking?

Douglas: You know, I think certifications especially, I think that’s one of the keys making certain that if it’s a compostable item and selling it as a composable item, that it has BPI certification. That’s the sort of gold standard for compostability. You know, what makes certain that it’s actually going to compost and actually is good for the environment. You know, that you look at what options are available in your area. Going back to the recycling, you know, some people sort of look at recycling as sort of as an option if there’s a good, robust recycling program in your area. And it’s a material that can easily be put into that program, obviously, that can be good as well. But, you know, it’s to sort of understand what’s there, if it’s going, you know, in many areas. For example, we had this discussion at the National Restaurant Association. You know, there are many areas of the United States where there isn’t good recycling or composting programs. And I always said I’d much prefer my item to go into a landfill than a piece of plastic that’s going to be there for 500 years. That’s one of the things we have to look at in the short term as well is, well, it may not be perfect what’s better than what we’re currently doing? And then I think the other aspect of it is exactly is the presentation. I think a lot of the packaging items that we tried very, very hard with our items to sort of replicate the type of presentation and the type of things that consumers are used to and that restaurants are used to. And making certain that, you know, from a technical standpoint. Exactly. We’re talking about before that, you know, some of the insulating techniques and those types of things are there because, you know, the last thing you want is to use flimsy packaging that ends up spoiling the food, spoiling the presentation, making it so that, you know, when the customer gets it home or has it delivered, that it’s not the type of thing that you’d be proud to serve. And that’s one of the. He’s to this whole thing. And it’s really what the industry is looking for and what they’re trying to achieve. So I think that’s so important that I think the packaging is integral to making certain that happens.

James: Yeah. Now, just to end the conversation, where do you think this industry is headed and where do you think sustainable packaging will be in 5 to 10 years?

Douglas: I see huge growth you’ve seen during the pandemic in everything more and more take out more and more people that are bringing, you know, restaurant food to their homes. And, you know, I do see that continuing to grow and continue to be a big part of people’s lives. And it’s part and parcel to that. I see sustainable packaging as massively and exponentially growing sector that’s going to have trouble in the short run keeping up, but in the long run, I think is going to be the norm and it’s going to be second nature to everyone 5 to 10 years from now.

James: Well, thank you so much for joining me today.

Douglas: Great. Well, thank you for having me. It’s been great.