Plastic for Good | ANA
Purposeful People Series

Plastic for Good

Paul Boudreau transforms an industry through biodegradable and compostable bioplastic materials

MimaCZ/Getty Images
Share        

Paul Boudreau, president and CEO of UrthPact, is a local boy made good. A native of the blue-collar city of Fitchburg in north-central Massachusetts, Boudreau graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 1984 with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in plastics engineering.

“I literally was going to change the world,” he says. “I didn’t know how, but I set out to make a difference in the world.”

Boudreau began his career working for a tool and die company, where he designed plastic injection molds and helped the firm convert from conventional drafting processes to computer-aided design. That led to a seven-year stint with Toronto-based Husky Injection Molding Systems at its central Massachusetts facility.

“That opportunity gave me an education in plastics and injection molding that was worth 10 times the paycheck,” Boudreau recalls. “I got to work with major companies all around the world.”

In 1997, when Husky closed its Massachusetts plant, Boudreau decided to launch his own engineering-design company, Innovative Mold Solutions, and it quickly was sought out by other plastic injection molding companies. “For the next 10 or 15 years, we were doing very well,” he says. “We quickly were getting the reputation for being able to do the impossible.”

Boudreau’s company worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies, including defense contractors on projects like night-vision goggles and medical firms on devices used in cancer detection and DNA screening.

In 2012, with his business “somewhat on auto pilot,” Boudreau had an epiphany about the long-lasting impact of plastics on the environment. Four years later, he formally founded UrthPact as a subsidiary of Innovative Mold Solutions. UrthPact’s purpose is stated clearly on its website: “We believe compostable products made from renewable resources are the answer to reducing our dependence on conventional plastic materials and their harm to this planet.”

Greater Good magazine recently caught up with Boudreau to learn more about the evolution of UrthPact and how he has delivered on his aspiration to change the world.

[This article was edited for length and clarity.]

 

Q. What was the genesis of UrthPact?

I was turning 50 and working with a [life] coach. We started talking about my legacy. I’m an engineer, so this was a little foreign to me. He challenged me: “I want you to start thinking about writing your own eulogy. What is it you want people to say about you when you’re no longer here?” That haunted me.

 

Q. How so?

In June 2012, I went on vacation with my family to Maine. One morning after a big storm, I went for a walk on the beach. Thinking about my coach’s assignment, I stumbled on a five-gallon pail that had washed up on shore. Like every plastics guy, I picked up the pail and turned it upside down to see whose name was on the bottom. It was a company that I had done work for at Husky. I thought, this pail has my name on it. Then I looked down the beach and saw all the plastic that had washed up. I picked up a plastic fork. It was from a company I had helped. For every single piece of discarded plastic I picked up, I knew the manufacturer or had worked on a plastics project very similar to it. It was freaky.

 

Q. What happened next?

The following week I received a call from a guy in Brooklyn, New York. He said, “We’re working with a group of coffee roasters, and we’re looking to produce a single-use coffee pod, similar to Keurig’s. But the difference is these roasters won’t have anything to do with standard plastic cups. If they’re going to get into the single-serve coffee business, the cup has to be planet-friendly. Maybe we can make it compostable or biodegradable. Are you interested?”

 

Q. Sounds like serendipity.

If I hadn’t gone for that walk on the beach, if I hadn’t tried to write my own eulogy, I would have told him, “This isn’t really our niche.” Instead, I said, “What’s the next step?” A couple of days later I was on a plane flying to San Francisco, and I met with the owners of San Francisco Bay Coffee, the Rogers family. They care so much about their name, their reputation, and doing the right thing. There was total synergy of our core values and their core values. Within a year, they were producing the world’s first 100 percent compostable single-use coffee pods. After using it, you put it in the compost pile and they’ll naturally biodegrade.

 

Q. Who came next?

A local company from Waltham, Mass. — Preserve — came to us and said, “We’re looking to get into the cutlery business, but we want a more sustainable option than conventional plastic.” And I told them, “You’ve come to the right place!” This is when we realized we had found our true purpose.

 

Q. How was your personal epiphany received at your company?

I was fortunate. I was past the entrepreneurial stage. We were a legitimate, full-scale business. I had a leadership team where I could say, “We’re going to look into this. We’re going to continue to work on this.” We had the coffee-pod business up and running. We proved that we could produce high-volume, compostable and recycled-content, single-use products at a competitive price right here in the United States. And it was scalable. To be able to say this is transferable to other products, that was a big step for us. Our original goal was to keep one billion pieces of single-use plastic from ending up in a landfill or in the ocean. We’ve met that goal and are now 10 times past it.

The owner of Husky once said to me, “I have never worked a day in my life for a paycheck.” That’s a great thing to say, but I recently came to realize at some level what he meant. It’s when you find a purpose — something that’s bigger than you — and you’re working toward that purpose rather than for a paycheck. I had found my purpose. This has very little to do with me and everything to do with the planet.

 

Q. Regarding UrthPact, have you changed the name of your company?

UrthPact was originally a subsidiary of Innovative Mold Solutions. We wanted to separate our compostable and sustainable efforts from IMS traditional injection molding with petroleum-based products. We have since formed UrthPact Innovations, and we brought both of those companies under one umbrella. [As of December 2020, IMS closed to focus fully on compostable and recycled content products. However, it is still working with two IMS customers making traditional plastic parts for medical devices used in COVID testing kits.]

 

Q. UrthPact is an intriguing name. The word “pact” is powerful because it implies an agreement between parties. Was that your thinking?

We’re looking to do our part, to be responsible stewards of the planet. It’s not ours to use, it’s ours to pass on to the next generation. I’m compelled by that. We truly believe we have made a pact with the planet and with the next generation. And my pact with the planet is that we will never greenwash. We will never say something that makes it seem like it’s good for the planet just to get more sales.

UrthPact President and CEO Paul Boudreau says his purpose has little to do with him and everything to do with the planet. Courtesy of UrthPact

 

Q. Has the company also made that commitment?

The company is absolutely committed to doing the right thing relative to our mission, which is creating a world where consumption leaves no footprint. There are several ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] standards we follow and official third-party certifications that we hold. If you say your product is biodegradable, even if it takes 25 years to break down, that’s greenwashing. That’s misleading the consumer because 25 years is not a realistic timeline. Our compostable coffee pods naturally disintegrate in 84 days or less in a municipal or industrial compost [environment]. It’s not years, it’s days. Our pact is that we’re going to do this right. If something comes along that doesn’t fit the standard, even if it means a financial benefit to the company, we’re not going to do it.

 

Q. Does your approach add cost to the products of your business partners?

The material itself, the resin, is more expensive than conventional petroleum-based plastic. Petroleum-based plastics have been around for 75 years. Bioplastics are new. There is a premium for the material, but our objective is to minimize any other [costs] associated with the customer choosing bioplastics. Yes, San Francisco Bay Coffee pays more for their products to be earth-friendly, but their mindset when it comes to this price premium is: “It depends on whose wallet you’re taking the money from. Yes, it’s going to cost us more, but to the planet, bioplastics are less expensive than all these K-cups going to landfills. Who is going to clean that up? And at what cost?” We can only hope there are more companies with these kind of values in the world.

 

Q. In a consumption-based society, people want the best price. They’re not worrying about where the product is going afterward. Isn’t that the challenge?

Thank the Lord for the 25- to 40-year-olds. This generation doesn’t think like you and me. We were brought up to think “single-use” — convenience, convenience, convenience. Use it once and throw it in the trash. Then convince yourself that things will magically get recycled. The younger generation looks at the impact of plastic on the planet much differently. If they find out there’s a home compostable straw over at that burger place across the street, they’ll switch [brands] in a heartbeat. Then they’ll get on social media and tell the world. The next thing you know, there’s the pressure [to change].

 

Q. But those younger end-users are not hiring UrthPact. What’s been the response of the business community?

Ten years ago, sustainability wasn’t even considered a C-level position at a Fortune 500 company. Now, 95 percent of all Fortune 500 companies have a C-level position for sustainability. That’s impressive. There’s a huge shift toward being stewards of the planet. Consumers now are demanding sustainable products; and companies are becoming more aware of this consumer shift.

 

Q. So, you’re seeing a more concerted effort by brands to do right by the environment?

Yes, by far. Perhaps the hottest product, pre-COVID, was cannabis because of its legalization. Within three months, I had 20 people contacting me to see if we could develop compostable packaging for cannabis. Also, beauty products. The smaller, boutique brands want packaging that is plant-based plastic, or bioplastic.

 

Q. How do you market UrthPact?

Much of our outreach is either through our website or via social media campaigns. We recognize there’s [an education] opportunity that needs to be filled. There’s a lot of new information, and a lot of very confusing information out there. It’s not all black and white. We’re the engineers, we’re the scientists, so we recognize that it’s our responsibility to provide education. Sales will take care of itself. A potential customer needs to make the decision about what they want to do. The greatest value we can provide is making the complexity of this new market segment easy enough for someone to understand to make the right choice. All our social media posts are educational. Insight proceeds change. I’m hopeful that people will say, “That’s a different perspective. We can do that. We don’t have to eliminate our single-use packaging. Let’s find a more sustainable alternative.”

 

Q. What advice do you have for brands that want to increase sustainability within their manufacturing processes so that they’re making a difference?

The advice I have is to consider that their single-use products are not necessarily the big problem, but rather it is the petroleum-based plastic that they are made from that is the problem. Petroleum-based plastics were designed intentionally to last forever. They were originally used to replace glass with Tupperware, or to be used in electrical connectors so they would last a lifetime. Unfortunately, because these materials became very affordable and easy to use, we ended up using it for single-use product applications. Some people think that the only solution to the plastics problem is to eliminate single-use products. Let’s take straws off the planet. Let’s take single-use cutlery off the planet. Well, that’s not practical. That’s not going to solve the problem. Changing the material to a sustainable plant-based compostable biodegradable material will. We could not feed the population of the world if it weren’t for single-use food packaging. If we ban single-use products, we’re going to improve one issue but create another bigger issue.

 

Q. Will that require a paradigm shift?

It is not realistic to think that we can ban our way out of the plastic pollution problem. There are way too many positives to single-use products that cannot be overlooked. But the good news is that we now can change the material to a biodegradable and compostable alternative, which will allow brand owners who care about their environmental footprint to provide a truly sustainable alternative to their consumers.

 

Q. It must be rewarding to know that, when you walk on the beach now, you don’t have to be concerned about finding a piece of plastic from a company you are currently working with.

Yes! And that is the happy ending to chapter one of this story. But, we have so much more to do to put this problem in our rear-view mirror. Our latest goal is to keep 25 billion pieces of plastic from landfills and our oceans.

 


 

Share        

Brion O’Connor

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based freelance writer and a longtime contributor to the ANA, specializing in social impact initiatives. His 40-year journalism career includes stints as a newspaper reporter, newspaper editor, magazine writer, and content provider for custom publications. His stories have run in Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Ski, Bicycling, and numerous alumni and in-flight magazines. You can connect with Brion on LinkedIn.

You must be logged in to submit a comment.