Henrico-based Terravive rolls out next wave of compostable food-service products

terravive swider keeling scaled

Joe Swider and Julianna Keeling of Terravive. (Jack Jacobs photo)

A locally based company that makes compostable cutlery, plates and other food-service products is bringing new offerings to the table.

Terravive recently started to ship its next wave of offerings, including shopping bags, disposable gloves for food preparation, three-compartment plates and parchment paper to wrap sandwiches and burritos.

Now selling about 100 different products, Terravive pitches its offerings as environmentally friendly alternatives to similar disposable items made of plastic, according to founder and CEO Julianna Keeling. The company’s products are made out of sugar cane and corn-based starch sourced from domestic crops.

“The key thing with these is that they are 100% compostable, no PFAS added – no forever chemicals – and made in the USA,” she said in a recent interview.

Keeling founded Terravive in 2015 while still a student at Washington and Lee University. Originally the company sought to provide alternative products to reduce the use of plastic in the healthcare industry. That interest spawned from her mother’s work at MCV in Richmond. But after unsuccessful attempts to establish itself in the health industry, Terravive pivoted in 2019 to focus on food-related products.

“I grew up seeing a lot of plastic waste that was created in hospitals and started creating those products, but as a young entrepreneur I found it was really challenging to break into the healthcare market. I thought food was a natural application for these types of materials,” Keeling said.

Its first food-related products were single-use straws and takeout boxes, both of which continue to be offered. From there it expanded into utensils, cups, trash bags, food-storage bags and more.

The newest items, launched in February, were developed in response to requests from existing clients. Terravive sells its products to a variety of customers, including the federal government, healthcare companies, universities and others in the United States and internationally.

Chief Operating Officer Joe Swider said Terravive has expanded its offerings over the years and found success in introducing additional products in response to customers’ requests for particular items.

“Not having the right product-market fit kills a lot of startups,” Swider said. “The founders can be brilliant and they develop the best mousetrap. Well, if no one likes the color of that mousetrap, if they don’t like the price of that mousetrap, if they don’t like how it closes, no one’s going to buy it. … We really try to focus on the product-market fit, having clients demand the products and then we’ll bring that to market.”

Swider learned of Keeling’s efforts by way of a news article. The Navy veteran and seasoned executive met Keeling in 2019 while she participated in Lighthouse Labs, a local business accelerator program.

“I was reading the paper and her picture was in there as part of the cohort in Lighthouse Labs. I saw what she was doing, and I was tracking all the plastic and Styrofoam bans. I was like, ‘Oh, this is an interesting company,'” said Swider, who has experience in technology, advanced materials and the energy industries.

Keeling, who studied chemistry in college, and Terravive hold multiple patents for compostable products the company sells, and the products are made of proprietary materials, according to the company.

Terravive contracts with 16 manufacturing facilities throughout the country to make its products. Swider said the facilities have the capacity to make about 50 billion products per year. The company declined to comment on the number of products made or sold annually.

Terravive has 11 employees, including Keeling and Swider. The company is based at Keeling’s Henrico home and has an office in Startup Virginia, a business incubator in Capital One’s Michael Wassmer Innovation Center in Shockoe Bottom.

The company says it is profitable but declined to share its annual revenue. Keeling said that shifting global trends stand to boost Terravive’s business moving forward.

“Terravive is positioned at this very moment for exponential growth,” she said. “People are becoming aware of the single-use plastic problem. People are aware that microplastics have been found in human tissue and breast milk and they’re like, ‘We don’t want to do that anymore.’ Same thing with PFAS. So every single day that goes by, more and more regulations on plastics, PFAS and microplastics continue to come down. We’re actually in a position where our products are getting more and more price competitive.”

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Bruce D Anderson
Bruce D Anderson
23 days ago

Seems like a neat idea, but how does this stuff get into the compost stream instead of the waste stream? More to the point, is there a compost stream, and if so, how do you access it?

Last edited 23 days ago by Bruce D Anderson
Chris Crews
Chris Crews
23 days ago

It would seem getting into the compost stream is a value-add. Even if they were disposed of with regular waste, they’ll leach no chemicals into the ground. Totally biodegradable with no plastics. Ideally they’d be composted but a significant reduction in chemicals to our water and soil.

Bruce D Anderson
Bruce D Anderson
23 days ago
Reply to  Chris Crews

So the product is bio-degradable, and calling it “compostable” is a marketing angle because it doesn’t really get composted in the sense that it doesn’t end up in a (plastic) bag that you buy at the local garden center. And that’s too bad because that stuff in the bag at the garden center is really peat moss with a little compost for flavoring.

Last edited 23 days ago by Bruce D Anderson
Garry Whelan
Garry Whelan
23 days ago

Their website has details on how their products break down in different environments (including home composting).
Some localities do run municipal composting schemes, just not around here. Given how slow we are to adopt more progressive practices,I suspect their business model is set up for more than the Greater Richmond region.

Bruce D Anderson
Bruce D Anderson
23 days ago
Reply to  Garry Whelan

As a small-scale commercial composter, when I see the word, my ears perk up. It’s hard to find real organic compost in this area. We run a 22-horse equine retirement and training facility that composts all organic waste (and some from strategic partners to boost our CN ratio) — to the tune of about 40 cyd / month.

Last edited 23 days ago by Bruce D Anderson