Coronavirus Impact: Worker safety, eco-friendly products fuel CA startup's success during pandemic

MANTECA, Calif (KGO) -- At a time when many companies are struggling, a Manteca manufacturing plant is running around the clock, cranking out a groundbreaking product.

Ecologic Brands produces what it calls the "world's first paper bottle," made primarily of recycled cardboard and old newsprint.

The bottles come in a range of sizes and shapes, made of strong cardboard shells around a thin plastic liner. The bottles use 60 to 90% less plastic than traditional bottles according to Ecologic's founder, Julie Corbett of Oakland.

ABC7 News first told you about the eco-friendly bottles a couple of years ago and we went back to see how this startup is adapting in the era of COVID-19.

Dealing with a pandemic is unfamiliar territory. Corbett said the key is to be flexible.

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Under California rules, packaging companies like Ecologic are considered essential businesses and allowed to keep operating during shelter-in-place orders. But it still took some critical twists and turns to keep the factory running.

First - there is social distancing. The factory now has a redesigned workflow to keep workers separated, but it is not always possible.

"One of the challenges around the new social distancing rules is that we have equipment that was not designed originally to have people six feet apart," Corbett explained. In those cases, Ecologic has installed Plexiglass barriers between workers.

Ecologic stepped up sanitation and requires workers to do so as well. The factory staff must wear masks and hair nets and wash their hands frequently. In the break room, they have to stay at least six feet apart from each other.

When the shelter-in-place order started, one of the biggest immediate problems was helping employees handle their personal lives to make sure they could get to work.

Machine operator Kayla Contreras is a single mother of two young children. "It was very scary because both my children are in childcare. The childcare shut down, so with that it was kind of hard for me to work at times," Contreras said.

Ecologic began working with employees to create flexible schedules. Contreras said that made a big difference. "It means a lot because it showed me how much they actually cared about their employees."

Retaining trained employees is critical because Ecologic's business is booming.

"The demand for certain products is four times what they were at the same period last year," according to Corbett. Some of that increased demand is coming from "Seventh Generation," which uses Ecologic bottles for some of its green cleaning products.

"This is a time of massive transformation. You are seeing more and more brands convert to natural products," Corbett said.

At the same time, people are getting a lot more home deliveries during the pandemic. Those deliveries often arrive in cardboard boxes, so there is more cardboard than ever that needs recycling. Ecologic is now one of top ten largest cardboard recyclers in the state, according to Corbett.

Cardboard bottles have another selling point as well. Recent studies show the virus that causes COVID-19 can last three or more days on plastic, glass, and stainless steel, but just 24 hours on cardboard.

Ecologic is diverting so much cardboard from California landfills it has qualified for $5 million in state loans to buy more equipment.

"We've defied what people say - that manufacturing in California is impossible. We have a very thriving plant here," Corbett said.

Ecologic bottles are now sold in 10 countries and 20,000 stores around the United States. The company says there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the factory.

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