Among other items, Genera plans to produce molded fiber foodservice products like plates, bowls and takeout containers. ( Courtesy Genera )

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Working with farmers in Tennessee, Genera is contracting switchgrass and biomass sorghum as inputs to create compostable, sustainable packaging when its manufacturing facility comes online later this year.

The company’s main product, Earthable, will be made with compostable fiber produced by local farmers, according to the company. 

The fibers will be used for a variety of manufactured products, including towels, tissues, packaging boards, and molded fiber food containers.

Company background

Sam Jackson, vice president for business development for Genera, said the company has been in the agricultural biomass space for a number of years.

“We were originally formed in 2008, and spent several years really focused on supplying biomass to biofuels and biochemical producers, back when cellulosic ethanol was a big push,” he said.

By 2015, the company determined it would look at ways it could move being just a supplier and aggregator of biomass to adding value through downstream manufacturing.

“We started evaluating a number of different technologies and products that we could look at, and within about a year or so we focused in on agricultural fiber, so making a pulp out of agricultural materials that can be used downstream for paper towel, tissue products,” he said. 

The company also has now committed to molded fiber production.

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The company spent a lot of time working with technology developers to build a market case for molded fiber production.

“Essentially what we have done is we put together a facility here in Vonore, Tenn., and we received our full financing on that facility in July of 2019,” he said. 

Genera raised more than $118 million in new investment to develop its first manufacturing facility for production of Earthable, and the company is actively looking to recruit farmers to grow switchgrass or biomass sorghum for production.

“We are retrofitting an existing industrial facility here so we have a very tight timeline, and we expect to come online with commercial production before the end of 2020,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the facility will take about 150 tons of agricultural biomass per day and create a downstream fiber product line from about 100 tons of pulp-based short fiber. Of that output, Jackson said Genera will sell about half of the pulp to the towel and tissue marketplace. 

The other half of the pulp will be kept in-house to make thermoformed molded fiber products, including plates, bowls, takeout containers and consumer packaging.

“As we got into this fiber world, (we found) there’s a huge consumer push for sustainable products, clearly, and that’s been well documented in the media with a push against polystyrene plastic,” Jackson said. 

“Fiber-based products have really taken a big leap in terms of demand in the marketplace, and so as we’ve developed our product lines here, both on the fiber side as well as the finished product side.”

With the facility under construction, commercial production will be underway by the end of the year.

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Genera will contract with growers near the facility to grow switchgrass and biomass sorghum. In addition, some wheat straw will be used.

“The idea is we’re creating some new markets for farmers here in the region, they’ll produce the feedstocks, and we will bring them into the facility and convert those into usable products,” he said.

The produce market is a prime target for the compostable packaging, but the company’s initial focus will be foodservice takeout containers. Many fiber-based containers used in foodservice now are imported from Asia.

“We’re providing a domestic solution here that ties a local farm to this finished product,” he said. 

The fiber packages are certified to compost in a commercial facility within 90 days.

Jackson said that Genera has pre-sold quite a bit of its future output.

With rising consumer resistance to plastic, the challenges in the recycling market in the U.S. and around the globe, Jackson said Genera is well positioned to meet domestic demand.
“It just makes total sense to have a domestic solution, that you work with a local farmer to produce the feedstock to transport that a reasonable distance, with the finished products made in the U.S. to consumers,” Jackson said.

Genera contracts with growers to produce the biomass, said Brad Valentine, feedstock manager at Genera. The company needs about 150 tons of biomass per day, or about 55,000 tons a year. That equates to about 8,000 to 10,000 acres.

“What we’re looking to do is we’re basically contracting to purchase the baled product from the growers,” Valentine said. 

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Genera is offering 5-year contract to growers.

“That provides that landowner a guarantee that we will purchase everything that they grow at a set price. So there’s a very good consistency and a long-term commitment there, from our standpoint, and it provides the landowner with some income certainty over time,” he said.

While there are handful of competitors, Jackson said there is room for suppliers to meet fast-rising demand, and many of them also benefit agricultural marketplaces.

“Some competitors are using wheat straw, some are using sugar cane, and some are using wood,” he said. “They’re all good fibers, and we firmly believe that the market is growing at such a significant extent that the more of us that are successful in this space, the better off it will be for all of us.”

“We could sell a significant volume more than we’ll be able to produce at this facility, you know, so hopefully in the future we’ll be building other facilities and other locations,” he said. 

“There are other players in the marketplace, and we hope they’re as successful as we are, because it’s going to take us all to meet this consumer demand that’s out there today.”

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