Fall 2008 Issue - Special Report
Green British Columbia Cluster
Posted: December, 2008
PAKIT Takes On Plastic Packaging
Some people grumbled when the Seattle Mayor and City Council decided to ban business use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers - better known to you and me as “Styrofoam.” But, the news was like music to the ears of Brian Birmingham, CEO of PAKIT, Inc., just up the road in Vancouver, B.C.
PAKIT is selling a manufacturing unit that produces compostable plates, trays and clamshells that can take the place of expanded polystyrene and other petroleum-based materials. The company was already ramping up for a sales push into the United States when news of the plastics ban arrived from the south.
“I was thrilled to hear about Seattle’s action,” Birmingham said. “Lots of North American cities are taking some steps to address plastics but they haven’t taken complete steps to deal with it. Seattle has its eyes open and is aware there are viable replacement products available like ours.”
PAKIT is no shoestring business run by guys with pony tails. It has raised more than $45 million over the past five years to refine its equipment and mount a bid at becoming the world leader in the production of biodegradable alternatives to nondegradable petroleum-based packaging products.
Anyone surprised to encounter a Vancouver company with such lofty, world-saving aspirations shouldn’t be. The Canadian federal government estimates that more than half of all Canadian firms engaged in greener products or alternative energy resources are based in or around Vancouver, and a growing number of them are helping Seattle based companies, like Foss Maritime and Kenworth Truck, “green up” their systems and product lines.
Among other greener things, Vancouver firms are engaged in designing and producing fuel cells, portable power and battery systems, hybrid power systems for commercial vehicles, cellulosic ethanol and biochemicals, as well as wind, solar, tidal and ocean wave energy technologies. The list stops here because we’re running out of breath, not because we have exhausted the actual list of green BC businesses.
The abundance of the BC cluster begs the question: Why?
First comes the climate change theory. Vancouver is by far the largest Canadian city where you are least likely to need a snow shovel. In a nation where about 100 people freeze to death each year, the relative warmth of the “Canadian San Diego” is often cited to explain Vancouver’s ability to attract bright Canadian companies and people.
But, there is also a historic root. Vancouver was a major counterculture hub in the 1960s for many reasons, including the balmy climate, the city’s European feel and the gorgeous scenery, to say nothing of the presence of a close-by international border that precluded any unexpected appearances by U.S. military police. It is the city where Greenpeace was born amid an environmental consciousness that extended from British Columbia to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
PAKIT CEO Birmingham grew up in Vancouver and believes we are all northwestern peas in the same green pod. “Vancouverites are like cousins to people in Seattle and Portland, Washington and Oregon. When it comes to the environmental movement, people from those areas have absolutely been at the forefront of it.”
PAKIT’s machines are environmentally simpatico too. They use one-third less the power of machines that make compostable paperboard products, Birmingham said. The goal is to expand the power savings to 50%. He says PAKIT’s machines also turn out a superior product. “You can hold one of our plates in your lap and cut a steak on it,” he said.
PAKIT’s biodegradable alternatives also hold up well to microwaving and they can stand the heat of a 500 degree F oven.
PAKIT owns the production equipment, but the technology was developed in Sweden with the first commercial machine made in Scandinavia. PAKIT plans to move production to North America to save on shipping costs and reduce the carbon content of its supply chain.
The company strategy is not to produce biodegradable packaging products, but to sell the production equipment to companies that will find a market edge in making their own sustainable packaging products. PAKIT is targeting food retailers, companies engaged in food processing and quick service restaurants, disposable medical products, and companies that make wood pulp, either on purpose or as a by product.
PAKIT made it first major U.S. sale to a company in Georgia, but Birmingham said the City of Seattle’s plastics ban inspired Pakit to start its southern push with a focus on the Pacific Northwest. “Many of your companies will like the product and their customers will like it too.”