Katie Guillemette is a machine operator at Tanbark Molded Fiber Products, a Saco start-up that designs and manufactures sustainable packaging using pulp from Maine trees. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When Tanbark Molded Fiber Products began producing wood pulp-based packaging for Luke’s Lobster shacks in October, the Saco startup took Maine’s centuries-old pulp and paper industry into innovative and uncharted territory.

But Tanbark co-founder and CEO Melissa LaCasse had an inkling early on that she was heading in the right direction, becoming one of the newest players in a struggling legacy industry that continues to reinvent itself as technology and markets evolve.

Her instincts were affirmed as she raised $3.2 million in seed funding from various sources, including the Maine Venture Fund, Coastal Enterprises Inc., the Maine Forestry Recovery Initiative and the federal Wood Innovations Grants Program.

Now, Tanbark is poised to replace thousands of pounds of single-use plastic foam, rigid plastic and plastic-coated containers for Luke’s Lobster, Hannaford Supermarkets and other companies that hope to answer growing consumer demand for products of all kinds with little or no plastic parts or packaging.

LaCasse is already looking to expand to a second manufacturing site in one of Maine’s empty mills, possibly even a paper mill shuttered by flagging demand that has decimated the state’s forest industries in recent decades. And she plans to answer growing need for research and development to produce additional climate-friendly alternatives to plastics from Maine’s commercially managed forests.

“We didn’t know how right we were,” LaCasse said. “But businesses know it’s coming. They know plastics are bad, and they know their customers are getting tired of not having plastic-free alternatives. Now, we just have to scale up at an appropriate speed.”


Tanbark joins other Maine companies already producing innovative forest products, said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. They include Timber HP in Madison, which makes wood fiber building insulation, and Louisiana Pacific’s plant in Houlton, which makes long-lasting exterior siding and trim with engineered wood strand technology.

“We’re creating new markets for forest products and helping one of our heritage industries meet growing global demand for climate solutions,” Johnson said.

Melissa LaCasse, co-founder and CEO of Tanbark Molded Fiber Products, a Maine startup that designs and manufactures sustainable packaging using pulp from Maine trees. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

LaCasse and others working with forest bioproducts got a boost last month, when Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Advanced Manufacturing Tech Hub, led by the Maine Technology Institute in Brunswick, was designated a federal tech hub by the Biden administration.

The Maine tech hub is one of 31 designated nationwide. It will receive a $500,000 planning grant to apply for $50 million to $75 million in additional funding that will be invested in each of five to 10 designated hubs. The money will be used for research and development of natural polymers and other wood fiber bioproducts to replace plastics and toxic chemicals, sequester carbon, and bolster supply chain resilience.

The Mills administration partnered with MTI and more than 30 Maine businesses, innovators and workforce representatives to propose the forestry tech hub, including the University of Maine, the Roux Institute, Sappi, Idexx and the AFL-CIO.

The goal is to invest in promising forest product innovation as a way to strengthen a key Maine industry, deliver an economic boost to rural Maine and advance global climate solutions that will grow the state’s economy, Johnson said.


It’s a priority for the governor’s team, which has worked to push Maine’s manufacturing GDP up 11% since she took office, from $58.9 billion in the first quarter of 2019 to $65.4 billion at the start of 2023 – more than four times the 2.4% national increase during the same period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

And it’s geared to counter what’s happened over previous decades in Maine’s pulp and paper industry, which fell from 20 mills that sustained 18,000 jobs in the 1980s to about eight mills with about 4,000 workers in 2022, according to state sources.


LaCasse readily admits molded fiber technology isn’t revolutionary. New Hampshire native Martin L. Keyes got the first U.S. patent in 1903. The factory he opened in Waterville in 1908 still makes Chinet plates, school lunch trays, drink carriers and other products under the ownership of global food packaging giant Huhtamäki of Finland.

Likewise, some legacy paper mills have refitted machines that previously made reams of glossy paper for magazines, catalogs and brochures. Now, they produce so-called kraft paper and cardboard that have answered increasing international demand for packaging and shipping materials.

The global packaging market is growing 2% to 3% annually and expected to top $1 trillion in 2030, according to Smithers, a multinational product research firm. Key drivers of that growth include advances in packaging technology, continued expansion of online commerce, and increasing consumer concern about plastic products and packaging.


“There is a particular focus on plastic waste, and as a high-volume, single-use item, plastic packaging has come under particular scrutiny,” Smithers found. “As sustainability has become a key motivator for consumers, brands are increasingly keen for packaging materials and designs that demonstrably show their commitment to the environment.”

In keeping with those trends, Tanbark is taking molded fiber technology beyond egg cartons and other packaging that often is made with recycled paper.

Tanbark’s smooth-finished, embossed and highly customizable containers are made from dried wood pulp produced by ND Paper in Rumford. The wood is harvested from the undergrowth of Maine’s lumber forests, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in trees, undergrowth, root systems and soil.

“A well-managed working forest is the best carbon-capture machine on the planet,” LaCasse said at the company’s formal launch party in October. “We are creating new markets for a product that supports a carbon sequester forest. And we’re researching additional plant fibers to add to our portfolio.”

Tanbark turns the 30-by-30-inch sheets of market pulp into a slurry that is molded, dried and formed into clamshell containers and other packaging that is fully recyclable and compostable. And it’s produced on proprietary equipment that was custom designed for Tanbark’s 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Saco.

Other companies, many of them overseas, operate in facilities over 100,000 square feet and fill packaging orders of anywhere from 100,000 to 20 million pieces, LaCasse said, while Tanbark runs orders of 5,000 to 10,000 pieces.


“Our small machines give companies access to molded fiber solutions right here in North America,” LaCasse said. “And as we find broadly applicable solutions, we can scale with our customers as they grow. It seems simple, but it’s a game-changer.”


This month, Luke’s Lobster, a Maine seafood company with 31 restaurants worldwide, began testing Tanbark molded pulp clamshell to-go packaging for their lobster, crab and shrimp rolls. They’re starting at four shacks, including the Portland Pier location, replacing cardboard containers.

“If the trials go well and we adopt all these containers in all of our shacks, this could replace close to 2 million of our current packaging items over the course of a year,” said Ben Conniff, co-founder and chief innovation officer.

A to-go box made by Tanbark Molded Fiber Products for Luke’s Lobster shacks using wood pulp harvested from Maine forests. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As a Certified B Corp that has met certain social and environmental standards, Luke’s move to Tanbark products fits the seafood company’s goal to reduce its carbon footprint and dependence on single-use items by sourcing more environmentally friendly options. Plastics, which never really break down, are among the worst offenders.

The U.S. generated 40 million tons of plastic waste in 2021 but recycled only 5% to 6%, or about 2 million tons, according to the World Economic Forum. Most of the 400 million tons of plastic waste produced worldwide each year winds up in landfills, or in the environment as litter, and eventually, the oceans. But paper packaging also can be a problem, Conniff said.


“Virtually all cardboard to-go packaging has an invisible plastic liner, which means that while it feels less wasteful than plastic, it is just as hard to break down and similarly harmful in a landfill,” Conniff said. Even cardboard lined with bioplastics is only compostable under ideal industrial conditions, and very few customers dispose of their takeout containers in that way, he said.

“Switching to Tanbark means that our takeout containers don’t contain any petroleum-based product, and they will break down on their own without the need for industrial composting,” Conniff said. “There’s also a huge benefit in knowing all the other inputs in the container are sustainable.”

Even if cardboard isn’t plastic lined, he said, it’s typically produced overseas from sources that likely aren’t sustainably harvested. With Tanbark, Luke’s knows its packaging comes from local sustainable forestry that supports Maine industry and communities and isn’t destroying ecosystems.

“We’ve always had incredibly strict standards about only buying seafood that is good for our environment and good for our community, and we felt it was time that our to-go packaging meet that same standard,” Conniff said.

Luke’s also hopes Tanbark’s molded fiber containers will be more durable than paperboard that’s folded and glued.

“We find that close to 10% of our current packaging fails either because the joints become unglued, or because too much glue has been applied and multiple boxes are stuck together,” Conniff said.


And Tanbark’s low minimum-order quantity of 5,000 to 10,000 pieces will allow Luke’s to test the product and make improvements without committing to huge container ships of packaging made overseas, he said.

“Now that they are up and running, the lead time from ordering to getting the product in hand is months faster,” Conniff said. “We will be keeping in touch as they build out their capabilities to see if they have a match for any other items that we’d like to upgrade.”

Hannaford also plans to have a test run with Tanbark packaging, replacing the bottom half of its two-muffin plastic clamshell with a molded pulp container, said George Parmenter, Hannaford’s sustainability manager.

“I hear from customers all the time, ‘There’s too much plastic packaging,’” Parmenter said. “Reducing plastic packaging is a topic that’s top of mind for many companies in our industry. We’re seeing a lot of innovation because a lot of people want to move away from plastic where it’s not necessary.”

Parmenter became aware of Tanbark through his work with The Roux Institute and liked the idea of addressing the plastic packaging problem using local labor and resources. While the two-muffin clamshell containers will still have clear plastic tops, the trial run with molded pulp bottoms will reduce Hannaford’s plastic waste by 500,000 pieces, he said.

“For us, it’s a test to see if this packaging will work for our stores and our customers,” Parmenter said.



LaCasse founded Tanbark in 2021 with her husband, Christopher, tapping her expertise in business development and his in molded fiber packaging machines. He’s Tanbark’s chief technology officer and also runs LaCasse & Weston, an engineering services provider for molded-fiber producers.

More recently, LaCasse joined Maine Technology Institute’s board of directors as chair, believing that the organization’s support and funding is critical to innovation across Maine industries and to startups like Tanbark.

“We are here to help industries and companies take risks that will hopefully help them meet and overcome future challenges through innovation,” LaCasse said. “We provide funding and assistance to help mitigate those risks.”

Looking ahead, LaCasse anticipates her staff will grow from 20 employees to over 50 in the coming year. With the planned expansion into one of Maine’s legacy mills, Tanbark could add 100 employees soon after that.

The company would maintain the Saco facility for micro-orders and research and development, she said, with larger orders fulfilled at the mill. With all the plastic packaging there is to replace with molded fiber containers, the potential is endless, she said.

“Look around your household at what comes in rigid, single-use plastic – food, makeup, creams, shampoo, vitamins,” she ticks off a list. “Anything that comes nested in plastic when it is shipped to you – electronics, medical devices, personal items. Look around a hospital or a service environment.”

LaCasse said she preaches reusable options first. She was happy when her daughter’s sailing team recently required members to bring reusable water bottles.

“After that, we have to use sustainable materials for single use,” she said, “and molded fiber is one of the best.”

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