Julianna Keeling started her business like many entrepreneurs do – in her garage.
CPA’s newest board member is one of the brains behind Terravive, a small business started in 2015, that designs and manufactures biodegradable materials for the food service industry. The old Styrofoam containers go into the trash. Terravive’s can go in your backyard under a leaf pile. It will break apart in a few months.
“In the very beginning, it was just me,” she said of Terravive’s beginnings. Keeling’s background is in chemistry and environmental science from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. She figured out that there were other materials out there that could look and perform as well as single-use plastic without damaging the environment. After spending some time in San Francisco learning how technology companies quickly scale, in 2016 she took a lot of that research out of the lab and brought it to the marketplace. She decided to focus on food service since everyone has to eat – making to-go containers, cutlery, cups, plates, bags, straws, and biodegradable films.
To get it up and running, Keeling brought in Joe Swider. She met him about three years ago at an accelerator program for start-ups. “I had an article written about me in the Richmond Times Dispatch and Joe heard about me from there. He actually read the newspaper,” she said, being playful.
“I’m a bit old school when it comes to newspapers,” Swider said.
“He marched himself down to where I was working,” she said. “He is a Navy veteran and serial entrepreneur who started some other advanced materials companies before (Prime Photonics, Interphase Materials) and he was General Manager of Innovation at United States Steel. Joe completely understood what I was doing and where we needed to go. We have been smartly growing the company globally ever since and have not looked back.”
Swider is a co-owner and the company’s Chief Operating Officer.
Terravive has ten direct employees and contracts out about 1,000 workers throughout its U.S. operations.
Who is buying their enviro-friendly containers?
Some are brand-name retail commercial giants like Target, some are government contracts and local grocery stores and corporate clients who use Terravive products in their cafeterias. Maybe it gives those companies a better ESG score? Their employees and customers are certainly looking for American-made, sustainable solutions like those Terravive offers. Those customers are also looking for products that don’t create microplastics in the environment nor do Terravive’s clients want products with PFAs, a forever chemical.
Terravive has its own research and development team that devises and improves upon its biodegradable product lines. It’s in Pittsburgh. “Then we have a team on the operations side that runs the manufacturing facilities and back office. Joe and I are primarily doing sales, partnerships, and long-term strategy,” she said.
Their factories are located throughout the United States on the east coast, west coast, and midwest with redundant capacity to ensure a resilient supply chain. Many of their new customers have experienced seismic economic losses from unreliable Chinese supply chains so Terravive’s customers have decided to rely on stable U.S. suppliers like Terravive.
They currently have around 16 manufacturing locations in the U.S., with the capacity to churn out about 50 billion eco-friendly products a year. Terravive is currently selling its products throughout the US and internationally in four continents.
“Our goal is to grow out our manufacturing capacity here in the U.S.A.,” Keeling said. “But we have the opportunity to open up a warehouse, and distribution operations in Europe and Southeast Asia so we can export. Right now, we are shipping throughout North America and into Europe, the Middle East, and some African countries,” she said.
They are always competing with Chinese knockoffs. China knows the Western world is big on recycled and eco-friendly materials, so like most products, they are copying the tech to the best of their ability and selling worldwide rather than at home.
“A lot of the biodegradable materials technology is developed here, but it is either stolen or imitated somehow by unscrupulous Chinese suppliers and then they ramp up production, subsidize the manufacturing and logistics then sell it here in the U.S.,” Keeling said, a situation that CPA members know all too well. “So yes, importers can sell you a case of products – all lower quality biodegradable to-go containers that you can throw in your backyard grass pile. They are our number one competition.”
There is a demand for what Terravive produces, of course. People want less toxic trash. “From the consumer sentiment side, if you are around younger people, you know that they are more aware of environmental impacts from plastic waste. We are seeing bans on single-use plastics and styrofoam rollout across the country. That’s good for Terravive,” Keeling said.
Corporations that are big on Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance, best known as ESG, are adopting eco-friendly practices in office cafeterias to reduce waste. And that’s where Terravive comes in.
What Terravive Thinks About CPA
Keeling first became a member of CPA in 2020. She was later picked to be on the CPA board, making her the newest and youngest member so far.
“One of the things that was very attractive for me about CPA was your knowledge of the legislation,” Keeling said. “CPA has its finger on the pulse of Washington. You can read a lot and hear the gossip and political spin, but CPA knows what is truly going on. It is good to be a part of a coalition of people who have the same strategic goals. That’s not easy to find. CPA is doing a great job.”
Swider had similar feelings.
“CPA is doing an awesome job. Whenever we have asked for something, you guys are on it. There are whole pockets of the country that CPA appeals to immediately and I don’t think they even know about you. Look at places in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, places where manufacturing is encoded in their DNA. There are battalions of people that would love to know about CPA, but don’t, and would join. When Julianna and I go to these areas, we go to manufacturing and technology meet-ups and are certainly spreading the word about CPA.”
Recently, Terravive sponsored a compost challenge for those with a backyard and a green thumb.
“It’s a fun, family-friendly way to encourage more people to compost and all you had to do was build a compost pile and at the end of the month, take a video of it and we featured the top ten,” Keeling said. “Winners got a free subscription of Terravive products for a few months.” Terravive is still evaluating the submissions and will announce the winners soon.
When done with the Terravive’s eco-friendly containers, you can throw them back in the compost pile, backyard garden or simply your trash. Let the worms have at it.
Terravive’s growth and positive impact on the environment globally recently got the attention of various Congressional members nationally. Recently, Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA) visited Terravive’s office in Richmond, Virginia to see firsthand how Terravive is diverting mountains and oceans of plastic pollution from the environment and instead utilizing its American-made, eco-friendly, compostable products. Terravive shared how their American-made products are being produced throughout the country in support of commercial and government efforts at home and abroad.
“The healthier Terravive’s business is, the greater the impact we can make on the environment. We want to help the environment while also growing an extremely healthy company with robust American renewable manufacturing capacities,” noted Keeling.
If you look closely, you might even see worms smiling when they see a Terravive eco-friendly product, Keeling said. Yum.