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Next frontier for food: packaging

Father, daughter seek to make and wrap a better bean


by: JONATHAN HOUSE - Hannah Kullberg, cofounder of the Better Bean Company, is diligently working to reduce the environmental impact of food packaging.  Hannah Kullberg proudly calls herself the "bean queen."

Her orange business card says so, right under the cheery bean logo and company slogan, "rethought beans."

The Better Bean Company, which she started with her dad three years ago, has indeed rethought the way people buy and eat beans.

It's a vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, locally sourced artisan product that is Food Alliance-certified and, as of this month, certifiably free of genetically modified organisms.

Portland-area farmers markets and grocery store shelves are chock full of such all-natural artisan products boasting of being sustainably produced — at least on the inside. But there isn't such a frenzy over what's on the outside — the packaging.

That's where Kullberg and her dad, Keith, decided to be pioneers.

Last year they had a revelation, switching over from the bulky plastic deli tubs they'd been using to little plastic tubs that are fully recyclable, free of Bisphenol A (BPA) and result in 30 percent lower carbon emissions.

“With the old package, we had garbage cans full of label backs we couldn’t do anything with — we just had to throw it away,” says Hannah, 25, a Portland native and Lincoln High School alum who went on to study food systems at Vassar College.

So the Kullbergs found investors and signed on with a company based in Sweden that uses a packaging technology that's popular in Europe but hadn't been tried in the U.S., to their knowledge.

Their "one seal" packaging technology required them to buy a specialized $60,000 machine, which they moved into shared space in Wilsonville. It was costly, but the Kullbergs saw it as an economical and ecological win-win.

“Lower waste equals lower cost, so what the consumer is paying for is mostly the ingredients and preparation, not the packaging," says Keith Kullberg, an engineer who first started making vegetarian refried red beans for his daughters when they were young, inspired by his trips to Mexico.

With the new machine, they were able to add 1.5 ounces more product and yet keep the price the same.

The new rectangular shape fits more compactly on large pallets for shipping, eliminating most of the cardboard they formerly used. That makes for more efficient shipping and storage costs, using less oil for fuel and less electricity for refrigeration. They dropped the use of the film seal label, which wasn’t recyclable.

The plastic is thin but not too thin. They first experienced some breakage issues, but quickly addressed them.

It's still an evolution. "We want the company to hold to its promise of making it 100 percent post-consumer," says Hannah, referring to the term for content made from waste that's been diverted from landfills.

Along the way, the Kullbergs have adopted other ways to reduce and reuse their packaging. For example:

• They now wash the non-recyclable black plastic containers that tomatillos come in, giving them to local farmers to be reused.

• They found an alternative, reusable jug for their safflower oil, replacing five-gallon plastic jugs that weren't recyclable.

• Their beans used to come in 25-pound paper bags that led to a lot of waste; they switched to a giant 2,000-pound reusable tote they can refill as needed.

New local heroes

Better Bean's pioneering business model earned it the distinction of being one of four nominees in Ecotrust’s annual “Local Heroes” contest this month.

The contest nominees “exemplify high standards in their social and environmental practices, food sourcing, regional economic impact, and commitment to promoting a sustainable food system,” according to Ecotrust.

Better Bean is up for the artisan food award, a competitive one in Portland’s burgeoning scene. Nominations came from the public; a selection committee whittled them down and put them to a public vote, which closed March 4. The winner in each category will be announced at a March 21 ceremony.

The Kullbergs say they're honored by the nomination. Two years ago they attended the Local Heroes ceremony and watched Dave Dahl of Dave's Killer Bread accept his award in the same category. They only dreamed of following in his company's footsteps.

It's been a life-changing experience, Hannah says. In college, she says, "I was very radically anti-business."

In Portland, she served on the Portland Multnomah Food Policy Council, but was frustrated at the slow pace of change.

Since cofounding the company, she's found a new purpose.

“It's changed my belief in the ability for business to make change. We need businesses to be leaders, making new models."