Student Entrepreneur Vows To ‘Make Sustainability Cool’ With Eco-Friendly Cups

December 5, 2023 By Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu

The iconic red Solo cup has become synonymous with the college experience. While these single-use cups are convenient, they come with an enormous environmental cost. An estimated 8 billion single-use plastic cups are used on college campuses across the country each year, most ending up scattered across lawns and in landfills. 

University of Virginia third-year student Lucy Hirshland’s mission is to disrupt the plastic industry and make sustainability cool among younger generations. She’s joined Earth Brands, a sustainable products company offering environmentally conscious alternatives to single-use plastic products. Hirshland is the company’s head of growth.

“Our overall mission from the start was to provide alternatives to typical single-use plastic and to make sustainability cool and universal among the next generation,” Hirshland said. “That started with really focusing on fraternities and college students, trying to be the first to educate them on our sustainable alternatives and the harmfulness of Solo cups.”

Misha Medvedev and Peter Frelinghuysen, two graduates of Williams College in Massachusetts, founded Earth Brands in 2021. 

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The amount of plastic waste they noticed on their small campus inspired the pair to look for alternatives. They figured if excessive plastic consumption was a problem at a college of just over 2,000 students, the issue must be more prevalent at larger universities. 

The company offers plant-based, compostable cups called Earth Cups. The cups look and function like clear plastic, but are made entirely of a corn and sugar resin called polylactic acid, or PLA. In an industrial compost facility, Earth Cups break down into soil in only 90 days.

During the company’s early days, Hirshland came across one of Earth Brands’ social media posts. She reached out to Medvedev and Frelinghuysen and within days was Earth Brands’ first official hire. 

Hirshland’s first year on the job occurred entirely online due to the pandemic. In fact, it took a year before she was able to meet the co-founders for the first time. But even remotely, Hirshland has built a reputation for her achievements and contributions to the company’s growth. 

Image of the cups

Made of a sugar and corn resin called polylactic acid, Earth Cups break down in 90 days in an industrial composting facility. (Contributed photo)

“[Hirshland has] grown into her role as Head of Growth – which is an immense title to reflect how immense her duties are – over the last 2½ years,” Frelinghuysen said. “We joke that Lucy is the glue that keeps everything together, but it’s really not a joke – it’s true.” 

In 2022, Earth Brands received its initial seed funding led by investor Mark Cuban, one of the “sharks” from “Shark Tank,” and Wyc Grousbeck, the owner of the Boston Celtics. Recently, the company closed their series A funding of an additional $4M from a few angel investors and venture capital firms.

Reflecting the age of its founders, Earth Brands’ target audience is college students. Using a guerilla marketing strategy, Earth Brands aims to spark a movement among young people to avoid consuming plastic products. 

One of Hirshland’s first projects was helping to launch an ambassador program which has grown to more than 5,000 student participants across 200 college campuses. The ambassadors work to promote the company’s mission through social media and word of mouth. In addition, ambassadors receive referral codes granting them discounts on all orders and enabling them to earn commissions.

Social media has been crucial in helping the brand grow among college students. Hirshland said, “The good thing about cups is that they tend to sneak their way into pictures,” Hirshland said. Using this idea, ambassadors help to send in photos featuring Earth Cups that the company can use as marketing material, helping them to spread from campus to campus.

Third-year global sustainability and cognitive science double major Lucy Hirshland experiences an overlap between what she learns in the classroom and what she experiences as Earth Brands’ head of growth. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

To regulate growth at individual universities, Earth Brands hires campus managers to strategize and recruit more supporters of the Earth Brands’ mission. Third-year College of Arts & Sciences student Blair Belford is the campus manager at UVA. 

“I think at large gatherings of people like fraternity parties, if people see our cups passively, it is promoting a sustainable mission and encouraging people to be more environmentally conscious,” Belford said. “It’s an easy and effective way of getting a huge amount of people to embrace a sustainable practice.” 

Belford Headshot

As the University’s campus manager of Earth Brands and social chair of his fraternity, third-year student Blair Belford ensures that he supplies Earth Cups at most social events. (Contributed photo)

By tracking plastic consumption at social gatherings, Earth Brands found individual fraternities use approximately 10,000 plastic cups per semester. To encourage fraternities to switch to sustainable Earth Cups, the brand offers a membership program where groups enjoy bulk ordering discounts.

As the social chair of his fraternity, Belford exclusively supplies Earth Cups at Pi Kappa Alpha events. 

Outside of the work on college campuses, Hirshland has helped Earth Brands’ partnerships with larger entities like Princeton University, Boston’s TD Garden arena, the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Tatte Bakery, Blank Street Coffee and, more locally, Bold Rock and Corner Juice. 

As a full-time student studying global sustainability and cognitive science, Hirshland said she experiences a lot of real-time overlap between what she learns in the classroom and what she is doing for Earth Brands. 

“There are definitely some things I learn that I can tie back into work, or I can bring my perspective from Earth Brands to share with my classmates,” Hirshland said. 

Though she maintains that her time spent with Earth Brands does not feel like work, balancing 40 hours of work on top of her school commitments requires her to manage her time wisely, she said.

“I’ve gotten better at learning to balance it,” Hirshland said. “The thing with a startup is there’s always so much to do. I could work every day till midnight, but I’ve learned that it’s important to maintain work-life balance and enjoy my college experience as well.”

After graduating, Hirshland plans to continue her work with Earth Brands. 

“It’s been really empowering, honestly,” Hirshland said. “I feel like now that I’ve had this experience, I've discovered how much I love the fast-paced startup culture and being able to see my direct impact on the company."

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to have at such a young age.” 

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Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications