Technology is continually making its impact felt all across agriculture, and two different lines of new compostable consumer products are showing potential for growth in the ag industry, not only regionally, but across the nation.

Earthable products

It was recently announced that a company, Genera, is investing $118 million in a manufacturing facility that will produce “Earthable,” a line of sustainable agricultural products. These will not only include compostable food service packaging products such as plates, bowls and takeout containers, but they’ll be a sustainable alternative to plastics and polystyrene (Styrofoam-type products).

It is predicted that Earthable will be the largest fully integrated, domestic solution for ag-based fiber and food-grade packaging in the United States.

 In addition, they hope to produce a wide array of towels, tissues, cupstock and other paper products to replace wood-fiber items. These products will all be designed to meet the growing, consumer-driven demands for more eco-friendly products in the food and consumer industries.

“With this new investment, we can begin to answer the increasing demand for environmentally conscious solutions with a truly farm-to-table product made in America,” said Kelly Tiller, president and CEO of Genera. “We’re excited about the new revenue stream we can offer our local farmers. Our Earthable plant-based paper and packaging products really resonate with consumers. We are passionate about delivering sustainability improvements to the marketplace while making positive impacts in rural economies.”

The initial plant will be a former biorefinery in Vonore, Tenn., which is owned by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF). The fiber needed will be supplied from locally grown, high-yielding conservation crops like switchgrass and biomass sorghum. Work has already started with local eastern Tennessee farmers to produce the feedstock used in the new facility.

“We are excited for the positive rural economic benefit of Genera’s fiber production facility in eastern Tennessee and beyond, furthering UT’s land grant mission,” said Stacey Patterson, president of UTRF and UT vice president for research, outreach and economic development. 

Genera’s fiber production facility is expected to be ready to deliver Earthable products to the marketplace in 2020, initially bringing 80 new jobs to Vonore. The company will begin hiring in early 2020, including skilled operators and maintenance positions. Even before the Vonore facility begins operations, overwhelming customer demand for its products has the company looking at options to increase production capacity at the Vonore facility potentially increasing total employment by 50 percent.

Communion cups

Dubbed the “friendliest cup on the planet,” many churches are switching to small individual communion cups that are 100 percent compostable and biodegradable and made in the U.S. from corn. These are replacing the traditional plastic cups that will never decompose in a landfill.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a bioplastic made from lactic acid and is used in the food industry to package sensitive food products, make cups, tea bags or mulch film. In the U.S., PLA is manufactured from corn, but several other plants are used in other areas of the world, such as sugar cane or tapioca roots.

These are just a few of the products made possible by farmers growing crops for the expanding compostable market.