SV Chat: Former Apple exec wants to save oceans, lakes with plastic-free products

SV Chat: Former Apple exec wants to save oceans, lakes with plastic-free products

Remember the red iPod Nano, a particularly memorable music device from the 2000s that Apple rolled out as a special-edition product?

Just before those were discontinued several years ago, Ying Liu, who helped oversee their manufacturing and sale, made sure to grab one — “for sentimental value,” she said.

That, it seems, is just Liu’s personality, to preserve the things that have brought value to her life. It led the former Apple executive to found a retail company, Blue Lake Packaging, with the goal of reducing plastic-packaging options by offering more sustainable, fiber-based alternatives.

Studies show plastic pollution has irreversibly harmed marine ecosystems, while incredibly small debris known as microplastics have made their way into drinking water and the larger human food chain.

But Liu believes it’s never too late to start using everyday replacements for ordinarily plastic items, such as bamboo rulers, fiber-based toy storage boxes and pencils made from recycled newspaper, plus Blue Lake’s latest offering: a biodegradable tape dispenser.

The iPod probably isn’t making a comeback, but Liu places far more emotional value in the oceans that she’s known and loved her whole life — so much that the company’s name would’ve been named “Blue Ocean” had that not been taken.

Ying Liu, founder and CEO of Blue Lake Packaging, holds a “Blue Lake ECOLIFE Clear Tape & Dispenser” in Palo Alto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. Liu, a former Apple executive, started the sustainable goods company Blue Lake Packaging when she realized she wanted her daughters to still be able to enjoy the natural world. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

The Beijing native once taught English overseas and traveled the world as an Apple executive, before the demands of motherhood led her to settle down in Los Altos Hills, where in 2018 she ran for the local school board and once led the parent-teacher association.

Liu previously founded a company based around an app that helped travelers plan their trips. But her well-honed expertise in the supply-chain industry led her to this latest venture, for which she is currently selling products online, including on its website and Amazon.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What made you interested in the packaging industry in particular?

A: I went back to China and visited a couple dozen factories, from paper mills to equipment vendors to bag producers to printing companies. What I found was the packaging industry has been very traditional — people have not really been trying to use some new technologies or really think about how packages will be disposed at the end of life.

When I came back to the U.S., the first thing I wanted to look into was solutions; I visited (Recology sites) in San Mateo and San Jose. I have to say, my whole life perspective got changed. I’ve seen piles of plastics — collected from mostly residences — to be sorted, with equipment that was trying to identify which was which.

But it’s so hard! Think about plastic bags and films and containers; they’re impossible to figure out. So a lot of those packages were just waiting to be transported to landfill.

I also learned that there are big landfill facilities only a few miles away from Half Moon Bay, which is one of my favorite beaches in the Bay Area, so I was shocked — and realized I probably contributed (to the problem) by putting plastics in the recycling bin without thinking twice. I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’

Q: How much is your concern for changing this cycle of plastic waste amplified by wanting to build a better future for your kids?

A: That’s really my motivation every day, waking up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and checking emails — the first thing I think about is solving this problem. I want more people to be aware of the plastic-pollution crisis that’s happening throughout the world.

I had my first kid at the age of 37, and my second at the age of 41. They’re still relatively young, school-aged kids. I feel like, as a parent, I need to give them a warm and secure nest when they come back home, but also I want to give them the hope that ordinary people like their mom can help solve the problems that will impact their future.

For Blue Lake, we’re a very mission-driven company, and I want our performance to be measured by how much plastic we avoid, and not only the profit we make.

Q: How are you able to sell these products affordably at scale?

A: As a supply-chain person, I always look at each product from an input, output and process perspective. When we look at the input, we utilize materials that are readily available in the world, so we’re not trying to create this novel product that’s so expensive to make. Wood parts and agricultural waste are accessible basically anywhere in the world. So that’s the material.

In terms of process, we always try to start our manufacturing technique with what’s readily available out there in the factories, instead of trying to invent new equipment. So we’re trying to do drop-in solutions based on the materials — that’s our design philosophy.

Right now, the product costs are a little beyond our control. We need the scale in order to reduce the logistical costs. During the pandemic, the (costs) were so expensive, and right now we’re starting to see it get to a level that’s probably settled. But there’s also inflation — it probably costs a lot more to ship it than make it.

Q: In the process of spreading awareness of environmental issues, does your marketing ever take on the tone of political advocacy? Do the two go hand in hand?

A: I’m very actively involved in the community: I was the PTA chair for my children’s school during the pandemic, I was on the board of our local theater, a library commissioner, a committee member for parks and recreation in our area, and on the Boys and Girls Club for Silicon Valley.

I felt very lucky that I joined Apple at the right time and was relatively financially independent, so I wanted to give back and have genuine curiosity for how things are done in the public and private sectors.

I also wanted to understand how decisions are made in public policy, and how things affect ordinary people’s lives, and how we can possibly make an influence one way or another.

But back to your question about whether my campaign is tied to any political narrative — the short answer is no, because the mission we’re trying to accomplish here at Blue Lake is part of a step forward in helping people understand the downside of using too much plastic in our lives. We just want to give people an alternative.

I don’t think I necessarily need to tie that to any political campaign in order to make this more visible. There may be different agendas (in politics), and for us at Blue Lake our only agenda is to avoid plastic as much as we can.


Organization: Blue Lake Packaging, Inc.
Position: Founder & CEO
Age: 50
Birthplace: Beijing
Residence: Los Altos Hills
Education: MBA, Michigan State University; Bachelor of Engineering in Operations and International Business


1. Born and raised in Beijing; came to the U.S. as a Chinese instructor for a liberal arts college and garnered a student rating of 4.95 out of 5, despite lacking formal teaching training.

2. Twelve-year tenure at Apple and the first expatriate from Apple headquarter to China, where she spearheaded the establishment of Apple China Operations from the ground up. Worked with factories to build deep knowledge of the entire supply chain.

3. A devoted wife of 27 years and a caring mother to two school-age daughters and a preschool-age miniature American Eskimo dog.

4. A seasoned traveler who has journeyed across six continents. Her motto: “See the world before changing it.”

5. An active community member with current and past board or committee services at the public library, park and recreation, local theater and MSU business school, among other institutions.