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Here's how a Saco startup is making single-use food containers from wood fiber

A Tanbark-manufactured container is held by Meaghan Dillon, VP of Marketing for Luke's Lobster, during the Tanbark's launch event on Oct. 11, 2023.
Tom Adamowicz
Norde Creative
A Tanbark-manufactured container is held by Meaghan Dillon, VP of Marketing for Luke's Lobster, during Tanbark's launch event on Oct. 11, 2023.

A new sustainable packaging manufacturer began production in Maine this week. Tanbark's molded fiber material — which uses ingredients taken from pulp mills — could offer the restaurant industry an alternative to single-use packaging.

Tanbark's newly opened facility in Saco currently has two machines producing its molded fiber packaging material. Chief Operating Officer Ben Fogg says the material is made from tree fibers and is far more eco-friendly than plastic.

"We feel very strongly about using virgin wood fiber. It's a very strong fiber that's the backbone of our product right now," Fogg says.

Fogg says the fibers are harvested in pulp mills in Maine and eastern Canada and shipped here to Saco, where they are converted to a liquified mixture.

"It's a pulping blade in there mixed with water. So it's just like a super blender," Fogg says.

And then dried into shape through a series of heat presses, hardening the liquid around the mold.

During inspection any defects or excess materials get thrown back into the pulper.

"We have zero waste here. All our trim from our products is recycled back in and then incorporated in at a small percentage," Fogg says.

What's left is a smooth finished product — in this case a fiber clamshell food container — that Fogg says is recyclable, compostable, and able to fit the needs of, say, a company that sells lobster.

Ben Conniff is the co-founder and chief innovation officer for Luke's Lobster.

 "We have our own processing facility in Saco, Maine. The biggest and most visible part of our business is our restaurant group, where we sell lobster rolls to folks all around the U.S. and to our licensed partners over in Japan and Singapore," Conniff says.

Conniff says Luke's has been looking for new food containers.

"What we have right now is a cardboard paper that is folded and glued together. And it is manufactured overseas. And there's a long lead time between ordering and it showing up. We don't know the exact conditions over how it's made, or the exact materials that go into that cardboard. And, frankly, the quality of it. The lack of traceability and the lack of sustainability, compared to where we're headed, is something that we're looking to move away from as quickly as we can," Conniff says.

So Tanbark worked with Luke's Lobster to create clamshell food containers and trays for their lobster rolls. Conniff says his company will ship the new containers across four of its locations for a trial run.

"And we know that everything that goes into making this product is done under a certain standard, that everyone is treated the right way, compensated the right way. That full circle of the materials that are going to come into our business and wind up in the hands of our consumers, that's really important from an environmental and social perspective," Conniff says.

Tanbark to date has raised 1.7 million in seed funding and employs about 20 people. There's room in the Saco facility for six more assembly machines, which the company hopes to install to expand its production in the coming months.

Nick Song is Maine Public's inaugural Emerging Voices Fellowship Reporter.

Originally from Southern California, Nick got his start in radio when he served as the programming director for his high school's radio station. He graduated with a degree in Journalism and History from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University -- where he was Co-News Director for WNUR 89.3 FM, the campus station.

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