Terry Lehmann, founder and CEO of True Green Enterprises, talks with Earth911’s Mitch Ratcliffe about her company’s new biodegradable hot cup and bamboo straws. True Green has a growing range of sustainably made recyclable paper products. You can listen to the recorded conversation or read the interview below.

Listen to “EARTH911 Podcast: Sustainability In Your Ear Talks with TrueGreen” on Spreaker.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Welcome to Sustainability In Your Ear, the Earth 911 podcast. I’m Mitch Ratcliffe, and in this week’s executive interview segment, we’ll talk with Terry Lehmann, who is founder and CEO of True Green Paper, a recyclable and compostable paper products company based in Boca Raton, Florida.

We’re really impressed with the wide range of products that Terry’s company makes using sugar cane husks and bamboo, the two fastest-growing renewable sources of fiber for paper products in the world. You guys have tree-free paper straws, tree-free paper towels, you’re working on a recyclable and compostable paper cup. Tell us about the full range of True Green products, Terry.

Terry Lehmann, founder and CEO of True Green Paper
Terry Lehmann, founder and CEO of True Green Paper

Terry Lehmann: Okay, so I founded the company in 2007 with the inspiration to create tree-free paper products from renewable resources so that we don’t use the resources that we need to pass on to future generations. So, our initial line-up is bath tissue, facial tissue, we do napkins, paper towels, and then just recently have patent-pending bamboo straws, obviously, to replace the plastic straw issue, and recyclable, compostable paper cups.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, let’s talk about the bamboo straws. That’s a big one right now. America is waking up to the misuse of the plastic straws. I think one of the key moments was a photo of a walrus with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Bamboo is an interesting alternative. Now, you’re talking about a straw literally made of the bamboo husk? What is this straw-like, or is it a paper straw made from bamboo?

Terry Lehmann: It’s a paper straw. It’s very strong. It’s better than a normal paper straw because of the bamboo qualities of it. An actual breakdown of it actually ends up in the oceans or lakes versus obviously a paper straw.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, you can put it through the lid on any kind of drink, for instance. It has the rigidity to handle that?

Terry Lehmann: Yes. It works with any lid.

Mitch Ratcliffe: You also are in the process of introducing a recyclable paper cup. Tell us about that.

Terry Lehmann: We have a brand-new patent-pending recyclable, compostable, paper cup. The reason why it’s recyclable is because of the new polymer resin that we use to line it versus PE (polyethylene) or PLA (polylactic acid), which aren’t … PLA is not recyclable. We’re quite excited about it. We’ve got lots of interest in it. We love that we’re making a difference in the world.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, the polymer is something that can be put into the compost or into the paper recovery process when they turn it back into pulp, and it just melts away essentially, without becoming a contaminant in the resulting pulp. Is that how this works?

Terry Lehmann: Yes.

Mitch Ratcliffe: How did you come up with that? That’s something we’ve been waiting for for a long time.

Terry Lehmann: We’ve just finished getting our BPI testing for it as well, which is great. It’s a great new idea, and we took advantage of it.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Now you’ve got a lot of corporate clients who are buying these to use in their coffee rooms, their break rooms for instance. Is this something that consumers are going to be able to get access to in the near time? Should they be expecting it? Should they be expecting to see this in restaurants where they shop at this point?

Terry Lehmann: Yeah, right now we’re doing some private labels for some soda companies. So, you’ll see their cups. They’re going to have it on there, and you’re going to be able to see that they’re using that type of cup. A lot of the major corporations are looking to be sustainable, a lot of them by 2020–2025. So, these new products — the cups and the straws — are really helping those corporations meet their sustainability goals.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Great. Let’s just talk a little about the materials sources. You’re using sugar cane husks and bamboo. These are renewable in the sense that you can grow these back very quickly. Bamboo grows inches a day, I know, and you can grow sugar cane back in a year. How much space does that take up? Where do you source your material from, and how is it in terms of the efficiency compared to forested paper products?

Terry Lehmann: Sugarcane is the number one crop in the world by hectare and in the past, after they extracted the sugar they used to burn the stalks. So, we take them and we mix them with the bamboo and pulp them to make our facial tissues, and bath tissues, and towels. As far as bamboo, like you said, it grows two to three inches a day, and it just grows back so rapidly, and we use those for our straws and our cups.

Mitch Ratcliffe: What you’re doing is recovering sugar cane husks that were being thrown away. Is this primarily in Florida, from where you are? Or are you getting this from all over the world?

Terry Lehmann: Florida just recently built a facility to be able to recoup the fibers, but that’s a recent activity. But we actually source it from other countries where it’s abundant.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Your manufacturing and distribution process, I know you’ve thought a lot about how to get the entire supply chain to be as efficient and sustainable as possible. As you do this, as a business leader, what are the main challenges of being a green company rather than being just another paper products company?

Terry Lehmann: Well some of the issues are production costs because it’s a little more expensive to make that we use. But we are able to still be price competitive. We use efficiencies in shipping and logistics to make that happen.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Okay, one of the things I’m really impressed by is you’ve been recognized by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council as one of the leading female entrepreneurs in the country. It’s obvious to me having been involved in a number of green events recently that women are leading the way in thinking about sustainable solutions.

Mitch Ratcliffe: It just seems to be a mindset that is more appropriate to female entrepreneurs these days. How did you get your start in environmentalism? I know you came from financial services. Why do you think that you have been so successful as a female entrepreneur?

Terry Lehmann: In my past I was in IT. I had a great career. I worked for NASA, and I had my own companies. I kind of semi-retired, and when I did, I started looking at what my carbon footprint was. That’s how I started the company. I wanted to make products that we can all use as consumers that would help leave something for our future generations.

So, I joined the WeBank Organization back in 2009, and that’s been very helpful. Because of them, my clients are Fortune 500 companies, I’m in Disney, I’m in Walmart, Sam’s Clubs. It’s been a great opportunity working with them. This year they recognized me as one of their WEB Stars for 2018, so that was quite impressive.

Mitch Ratcliffe: What do you think is essential to being a successful woman-led company? That is the label they put on all of the stars this year. Why does a woman-led company succeed? Or, how does it succeed?

Terry Lehmann: I think it succeeds like any other company. You have to really work hard. I think that the WeBank Organization has allowed me to be in contact with Fortune 500 companies. So, the opportunity is there, but you still have to work at it, and you still have to have the right product, at the right price, at the right time in order to help you.

Mitch Ratcliffe: It really is, it’s business as usual but from a slightly different perspective. It’s an interesting idea. One of the things that I’ve heard since I took over Earth 911 is that being green is not something that you should be profiting from. That seems to be a passing idea now that we are facing a number of recycling crises, in the Chinese ban for instance, on various products that has increased the load here in the United States.

It’s about thinking green whether you’re a female or a male entrepreneur. What areas, as you look at True Green’s business, do you see complimentary opportunities for other business to get into green production, shipping, or other forms of business? Are you … You’re most obviously in the group of stars, look at other women who are leading green companies. Where are the gaps that other people should be thinking about joining this industry?

Terry Lehmann: I think right now to get into the recycling end of it, especially since China did ban that, there’re opportunities here in the United States for us to have companies that use those recycled materials to make other products. I think that’s the big area that if somebody’s looking to get into could be very advantageous to them.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, would you be focused on re-capturing materials like paper fiber, or would you be looking for an opportunity to make products from recycled materials?

Terry Lehmann: I think to make the products. I mean, you could become a recycler, but I think there’s a sufficient number out there that being able to now use the recycled materials that they cannot now ship to China. So, there’s a big opportunity to bridge that gap that we now have.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, lots more thinking about how to take what we have, mind our existing economy, and turn it into something new?

Terry Lehmann: Absolutely, yes.

Mitch Ratcliffe: How does somebody find your product today? I know you’re primarily already in Fortune 500, companies as a provider of office supply and other materials, but where can consumers look for you and find you in stores online?

Terry Lehmann: Well we’re currently in 5,000 stores nationwide as well with our retail brand. It’s Green Too. So, that’s where you’ll find our bath, and facial, and paper towels, and napkins. As far as the consumption goes, if you go to Disney and you have a drink, it’s our napkins.

Mitch Ratcliffe: So, what are some of the stores that you’re in that people could look?

Terry Lehmann: We’re in Safeway, Stop & Shops, Sprouts, Shaws, Albertson’s stores.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Okay. What’s ahead for True Green? The paper cup comes out shortly, I know. Are you working on some additional, surprising, paper products?

Terry Lehmann: Well yeah, no we’ve been spending the last year on the cups and the straws, and they’re both now out and ready to be distributed. So, we’re going to get through the … and obviously, the straws and the cups are just … the volume is just so big right now, so that’s what we’re concentrating on. But we’re always developing the background, looking for new items that we can produce and come out with.

Mitch Ratcliffe: Well, that’s great. Terry, congratulations on a very successful business. We’re looking forward to continuing to talk with you about how it evolves. Thanks for joining us on Sustainability in Your Ear.

Terry Lehmann: Thank you so much, Mitch.

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.