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'I believed it could happen'

Audrey Copeland, a 2003 graduate of Ashland High School, grew up in an open, innovative world where her parents and teachers encouraged her to move forward as if there were no obstacles in the world.

She won a scholarship to Eckerd College, a small, brainy, liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she earned a degree in environmental science and researched the odd fact that her college cafeteria — and the whole world, in fact — was wasting huge amounts of money and resources on single-use takeout containers.

Copeland dove head first into research, finding that reusable takeout containers had to be stackable, with hinged lid, able to withstand high dishwasher heat and have no unhealthful BPA that could get into food. There was nothing like that available, so she decided to invent it.

Her college grant writer found an opportunity with the Environmental Research and Education Foundation. Copeland applied and, when she graduated in 2007, was awarded $32,000 to design a prototype, which she called Eco-Clamshell.

She found a manufacturer, G.E.T. Enterprises, and the product took off so fast, she said, they hired her to make presentations at conferences and to be a consultant, visiting thousands of colleges, corporations and health care facilities, including Go Box, which thrives in Portland.

Sustainability was her main motivation, and after she got an MBA in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School, a mostly online learning hive in San Francisco, Copeland joined a Los Angeles-based renewable energy development firm that, according to its website, “takes tangible action to create a world that runs entirely on green energy.”

“It’s one of the largest renewable developers in the world,” Copeland said, in an interview. “I’m a project developer, responsible for massive onshore solar and wind energy storage projects of utility scale. I do land acquisition, permitting, getting the whole renewable development built and online.”

One of her projects, Lux Solar Center, a 100-megawatt commercial solar generating and storage array on 1,140 acres south of Reno, was approved by Lyon County last December.

Meanwhile, “the Eco-Takeout movement” continues to spread and expand, with G.E.T. acquiring many competitors, such as the OZZI container, said Copeland. In an abstract, she noted, “The products and system have been featured and discussed in articles that look for alternatives to disposables. And the containers are still used throughout the world, even sold on Amazon. I continue to field inquiries many years later. It has been a gratifying journey and a step in the right direction for a world dominated by single-use products.”

In a 2009 article in Food Service Director Magazine about the Eco-Clamshell, one manager said, “We’ve seen a 75% reduction in the use of polystyrene. The Eco-Clamshells are more expensive than the polystyrene, but since we have a system where students pay for it, they can use it for four years. ... We went from using about four cases (of polystyrene) a week to about half a case a week.”

In the article, Copeland is quoted, “Our society values convenience. In a college cafeteria, convenience is translated to disposable takeout containers. The outcome? Tons of unnecessary landfill waste. Eckerd’s Eco-Clamshell offers a recycling system that is cost-efficient, sanitary, environmentally friendly and convenient.”

With such a successful and sustainable product, you might think it meant riches, but Copeland notes the box can be slightly altered, scoring a new patent and, you can’t patent a process, so she “didn’t make a killing.”

How did all this happen? “I believed it could happen,” said Copeland. “A lot of people told me it would never work, and when I hear a lot of ‘no’s’ I get more invested in trying to bring it into reality. Not everyone wants to bring things into existence. I’m very good at it. I’ve got to go make something happen from scratch and bring it to fruition.”

Copeland grew up with a house full of books and no television. Her late father, Paul Copeland, was a financial consultant, a pioneer in the development of the Bay Area computer world — and a noted community gadfly, spearheading a city council resolution against the Patriot Act and working against the high school’s zero tolerance expulsion policy for alcohol and drugs.

“Ashland High was excellent. I was very prepared. And Ashland is a very open place to live, one that values education, sustainability, inquisitiveness. You can always go create things, think outside the box and,” she joked, “literally I created a box.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Audrey Copeland