Being ecofriendly as a company is hard. Taking extra steps to make less of an impact on the environment can be expensive, which is a risk in the sink-or-swim entrepreneurial world.
In Maine, though, there are a number of businesses that are finding creative ways to incorporate environmental friendliness into their ethos, from finagling financing for renewable energy to inventing new materials with less of an impact on our oceans. Not only are these ingenious entrepreneurs paving the way for a brighter, greener future for Maine, but prove that innovation in sustainability comes in many shapes and sizes.
Making something new
Ariadne Dimoula grew up on the banks of the Penobscot River in Orono, where her mom, Claudia Lowd, worked as a pulp and paper engineer at the University of Maine. Dimoula loved swimming in the Penobscot, but throughout her childhood, she watched as students would come and trash her favorite spot along the river — and, eventually, the places she traveled to and loved.
“Scuba diving in Mexico on reefs, sailing from Newport, the problem that kept rising to the surface was all the plastic everywhere,” Dimoula said. “It was just like I couldn’t ignore it.”
When she started studying at UMaine, she thought she might tackle the issue of plastic waste through policy and international affairs, but quickly fell in love with marine technology. She graduated and worked for a sonar company with offices in Portland, where she not only learned about applying marine technology, but also how to apply for grants for small, innovative businesses.
In 2018, Lowd went to the University of Maine Pulp and Paper Foundation’s annual Paper Days conference and started learning more about products that look and feel like plastics but break down over time, like those made of cellulose. Dimoula, unable to shake the prevalence of plastic in her experience with the ocean, decided to team up with her mom to develop a plant-based, ocean compostable product that would act like plastic without hurting the environment. Thus, Paramount Planet Product was born.
There are other biodegradable plastics on the market, but Dimoula saw room for improvement. For example, Paramount Planet Product has committed to not use per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, which is often used to coat other plant-based “plastic” products to protect them from, say, grease stains if they are used as food containers.
“Bioplastics that are corn-based won’t dissolve in nature,” Dimoula said. “They actually need an industrial composter, and there are very few of those. Corn-based plastic doesn’t use petroleum, but it uses corn and it takes up a food resource [and] growing space. I don’t want to kill good in the pursuit of perfect, but they’re a half step.”
Existing biodegradable plastic products rarely weigh how their materials impact the ecosystem where many plastics end up, either: the ocean. As Dimoula and Lowd have developed their plant-based plastic, they have been testing it on zebrafish to make sure it doesn’t poison the critters when they are exposed to or ingest the degrading product.
The material that they have developed so far (at least, in Dimoula’s opinion) also feels better than other materials on the market — and, perhaps, even plastic itself.
“It’s smooth and snaps like plastic,” Dimoula said. “I would even say a little bit smoother. When you fold plastic, it’s crinkly.”
Dimoula said Paramount Planet Product’s goal is to create products that are in the top 10 plastic products that end up in the ocean. They decided to start with coffee lids — in part because there are some similar products on the market that prove there is an existing demand, but also because Maine has, as Dimoula said, “a sort of cottage industry around coffee [that made] it a great first product to look at.”
With the material prototyped, the next step is to form them into the lids themselves, which mother-daughter duo plan to do in the upcoming year in recently acquired lab space. Plus, she said, early cost analysis suggests that lids will be less expensive than those that already exist on the market.
Dimoula said that their goal is to have their products out on the market by 2021, and already have a few potential contracts in the work. Dimoula said that Paramount Planet Product’s vision doesn’t end there, though. As they grow, they hope to take advantage of — and revitalize — the heritage paper industry in Maine through their innovative products.
“There’s a lot of closed mills here that are just ripe to be multi-industry community centers,” Dimoula said.
Making it work
While splashy innovations are a great way to address the environmental problems, a fair amount of technology already exists for companies to be more ecofriendly — using solar panels to power a factory, for example. Sometimes, the true innovation is in figuring out how to sustainably implement that technology into your business, no matter what you sell.
Such is the case with GrandyOats, an organic granola company based in Hiram.
Since the 1970s when it was founded by two women inspired by a camping trip in Baxter State Park, GrandyOats has been an innovator in sustainability as a vanguard of the zero-waste movement, opting out of most conventional packaging and serving mostly bulk natural food stores.
Aaron Anker, who bought the company in 2000 with his business partner, Nat Peirce, said that the new owners wanted to maintain that legacy. They started by making the product entirely organic in 2004.
“It took four years to find ingredients back then,” Anker said (honey, he added, was the hardest ingredient to find). “We didn’t do it because it was in vogue — it was going to cost us more money — but we were holding to that ideal and we haven’t wavered from that.”
When the company outgrew its space, they purchased an old elementary school in 2015. The building was a veritable environmental disaster, filled with old gas radiators and asbestos tiles in the school gym. He and Peirce spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the school to meet their environmental standards.
Anker and Peirce wanted to be more ambitious than simply making a space that wasn’t a biohazard, though — they wanted to make their granola production completely solar-powered. It required a bit of creativity to fund the project. Anker explained that banks require collateral for loans, so it is easier to get than a home solar loan, where your house serves as an asset.
“It’s a school that’s going to be a granola factory, so it’s kind of tough,” Anker said. “I was able to get the bank and our solar provider in the same room. The bank brought up that we don’t have collateral and ReVision [Energy] said, ‘Well, [a solar panel] lasts 40 years. Will you write a letter saying if GrandyOats doesn’t work out, you can use them?’”
It worked. Since then, GrandyOats granola has been made exclusively using solar power (though Anker admitted that they have to get solar energy from other sources these days to keep up with demand). GrandyOats even received recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017 for its renovations.
“We were one of the first businesses to go solar power, certainly in Maine,” Anker said. “What’s so nice about solar is it’s sustainable in so many ways. You’re doing something that’s good for the planet, but you’re going to ultimately own those solar panels. It’s about a seven year loan, and at the end of the seven years, you own those [solar panels]. It’s a smart move, environmentally and financially.”
Filling a need
Sometimes, innovation is about building the infrastructure for a community to be more environmentally friendly when those mechanisms do not exist. In August 2012, Tyler Frank was living in an apartment in Portland with a couple of close friends, who were frustrated by the lack of curbside composting in the city. Not long after, Frank set up a service he called Garbage to Garden, where he would gather food scraps with a pick-up truck and compost them in his mom’s backyard in North Yarmouth.
Frank signed up Garbage to Garden’s first 17 participants at a First Friday Art Walk in Portland, but interest in the service skyrocketed from there. Now, the company services around 8,000 households and hundreds of businesses in communities in southern Maine and Greater Boston.
Not only does it have partnerships with Maine farms to use the compost locally, but the compost it makes is certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association for use in organic soils.
It also accepts all kinds of normally noncompostable waste like meat, bones and weeds. Its composting experts incorporate that waste into massive piles called windrows, which, unlike your average backyard compost piles, reach temperatures that are high enough to break down bones, weed seeds, pathogens and even toxic chemicals.
“The food scraps we collect are brought to farms that are considered industrial facilities,” said Anne Mello, office manager of Garbage to Garden. “It has to do with the scale of the composting taking place, achieving the perfect conditions for the composting action, and the types of bacteria that populate the piles.”
Mello said that Garbage to Garden also makes efforts to make composting more accessible to the general public by providing waste management for events, recycling for businesses and a volunteer program to give people first-hand experience with composting — and, she added, free access to the Garbage to Garden service for the month following their service.
Years later, Garbage to Garden is still finding small ways to innovate and make its service even more environmentally friendly and accessible.
“The soap we use to wash the buckets is from Maine Standard Biofuels,” Mello said. “This soap is particularly great because it is made using leftover grease and cooking oils that our participants leave out in jars on route for our field operators to collect. It’s important for us to accept these items as we want the service to be as accessible and comprehensive as possible.”
The Maine part of the story
Maine has been an important part of all these companies’ stories. First, there are the technical reasons that Maine is good for innovative environmental projects. For example, the state, despite popular perception, is a great spot for solar power.
“Maine is one of the best states for solar on the East Coast,” Anker said. “We get quite a bit of sun in the winter [and] if it’s cold out, that sun on the panels is going to be more productive. You’d be surprised.”
On top of that, the culture of the state is conducive to environmentally friendly projects. Mello said that, aside from the fact that no such service existed yet in the area, Portland was a perfect place to start Garbage to Garden because it was a service that resonated with residents.
“Southern Maine has long been home to residents with an environmentally conscious mindset,” Mello said. “Although the Portland area is the most populous, urban part of Maine, residents have a strong connection to the food they eat and the agricultural activity in the state of Maine and participating in Garbage to Garden’s composting program strengthens that by closing the loop and bringing the food from farm to table and back to farm.”
This culture of caring about the environment is what will keep these ecofriendly entrepreneurial innovations coming.
“I think in Maine, we’re open to innovation, open to new ideas and we’re ready and hungry to try new stuff if it’s keeping our environment in mind,” Dimoula added.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year that GrandyOats received EPA recognition.