If you are concerned about that plastic garbage island floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean estimated at twice the size of Texas, consider the plate — the plastic one you use and then toss into the garbage. Or the plastic straw that goes into your drink — or the 500 million that Americans use each day.
Environmental concerns are leading more cities around the United States, including Malibu, California, and Seattle, to ban the use of various single-serve plastic food-service items. As business owners, specifically restaurants and caterers, look for alternatives to plastic, a creative entrepreneurial boom is uncovering unconventional design approaches.
Warsaw-based manufacturer Biotrem is making more than 10 million pieces of biodegradable disposable (single-use) tableware and cutlery that compost — without need for industrial composting facilities — within 30 days. For those who can't wait the 30 days, these wares are also "accidentally" edible. The tableware is made from wheat bran, a sustainable, plant-based resource available in many regions of the world. The cutlery is made from fully biodegradable PLA bioplastic and wheat bran.
The idea to use wheat bran occurred in the late 1990s to Jerzy Wysocki, whose family's milling business dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Wysocki was looking for uses for wheat bran, a byproduct in the wheat grain milling process, other than animal feed or compost. The family milling business was small and couldn't compete with large mills taking over the market in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He gave up traditional milling and bet it all on the new model.
According to Biotrem, 1 kg of wheat bran products generates in total — considering the whole wheat cultivation process, transportation, processing and utilization — around 1.3 kg of CO2; 1 kg of polystyrene disposable plates or cups generates in total around 8.5 kg of CO2.
Biotrem pricing may be too high for some small businesses — $5 (MSRP) for a 10-pack of plates and $30 (MSRP) for a 100-pack. But Biotrem marketing specialist Artur Bednarz said the comparison to be made is not to typical paper or plastic single-use tableware, but to pricing of other plant/bio-based tableware, with which Biotrem is "pretty much on the same level."
Its business is booming, and Biotrem expects pricing to come down as production ramps up in multiple locations. Biotrem's long-term business plan is spreading the technology behind its production of bio-based tableware and packaging outside Poland, which should lead to lower production costs, Bednarz said. European distributors — such as large wholesalers in the Czech Republic and Slovakia — are ordering "really large quantities," according to Bednarz, mostly used by street-food joints, restaurants, event organizers and caterers. The company, which spent more than €5 million (US$5.9 million) on research and development to date, including support from the European Union and local authorities, is currently planning investments in the expansion of the current production plant and launching new facilities abroad.
Biotrem just picked up its first U.S.-based distributor, Coral Gables, Florida-based Veri Food, in January of this year. "We're selling everything Biotrem produces. It's going well," said Roberto Cavallini, marketing manager at Veri Food. "It's like Kellogg's [cereal] that you have for breakfast." While the jury is still out with humans, Cavallini said, "We did some tests with fish, and they eat it."
He said actions taken by cities around the United States, such as Malibu, California, will be a boon to this industry. He has made presentations to officials in Southern Florida, including public school authorities.
On June 1 a strict ban will go into effect in Malibu on single-use straws, stirrers and utensils. Plastic bags are already banned. Alternatives made from corn starch or corn sugar from the plastics industry are not allowed, as they don't compost quickly or without industrial facilities. Starbucks' hometown of Seattle has a similar ban going into effect on July 1.
The increasing focus from municipalities is leading to some creative thinking from business owners — in particular, restaurant owner Bob Morris, who owns popular Malibu spot Paradise Cove Beach Cafe, which serves 600,000 patrons annually. He found out seven weeks ago that the ban was coming. As an "old surfer," Morris said he agrees with the ban, given the state of the world's oceans. But his business couldn't figure out a way to use glass or stainless-steel straws in a sanitary way, and paper was too weak and didn't compost fast enough to use in straws. (McDonald's is testing paper straws in the U.K.)
It took Morris waking up in the middle of the night to find the answer. "I woke up and said, 'I think I have the answer.' I had seen this piece of pasta in my mind."
The pasta he saw was in the shape of a straw and was sold in a food market in Santa Monica. He thought it might work for a straw one day. That day came quickly. Morris said, "We call it 'The Amazing Pasta Straw."
It is an uncooked piece of pasta that works for up to four hours in any cocktail. The restaurant has already served more than 60,000 drinks using the pasta straw. Based on lack of customer complaints, "I ordered a few million out of Italy. ... Flour and water," Morris said. Business owners who pinch pennies over issues like these are truly pinching pennies, he said, as the cost of using the pasta straws over traditional plastic straws is negligible, a fraction of a penny.
"I've been on the beaches for 50 years, and this is something very necessary to do. When people see the pasta straw, it's something they can embrace. It's cheap, it's available, and for sure it can make a dent in the environmental nightmare we humans have brought upon ourselves," Morris said. "The cost of straws in huge volume is three-quarters of a penny. Anyone talking about going out of business is baloney. This is a clean, simple solution to a challenging problem. ... I wouldn't want to be in the plastic straw business now."
Paradise Cove expects to be ordering, and moving, a lot more pasta straws. "Pasta has only had one food use for hundreds of years. Now when we're talking about billions of straws, billions of anything is a lot," he said.
After initial testing with tens of thousands of the restaurant's patrons, Morris said there was one complaint — more like a question, about gluten in the straws. (He said experts informed him that gluten is not activated in the pasta until it is cooked.)
His mind is still racing with ideas. There are other colors of pasta to consider, spinach and beet. Paradise Cove tried "Twizzler straws" for kids in desserts, but that proved to be a bigger issue than gluten. "Parents don't want the kids to have the Twizzlers," Morris said.
But he isn't focused on that kind of business expansion thinking, at least not yet, though Morris said he has contracted with the Italian pasta manufacturer to sell the Amazing Pasta Straw Company brand worldwide. "Let's see if it works and spread the message," Morris said. "We're not trying to make a million out of it, just trying to get usage of plastic down, and as an old surfer, that's a good thing. My son says, 'Using your noodle.'"
The anti-plastic straw movement is growing, especially in California.
Manhattan Beach outside Los Angeles banned all disposable plastics, including straws, and Berkeley is now considering a ban. Restaurants around the country, in cities from San Diego and Huntington Beach, California, to Asbury Park, New Jersey, New York City, and Miami and Bradenton, Florida have pledged to ban straws or withhold them until patrons ask for them, according to a Washington Post report from last year.
At Biotrem, efforts are also moving ahead to develop some new products, such as cups, ice cream bowls and muffin molds (and even products that are not meant for food serving), Bednarz said. Its next line of products — made out of corn bran, cassava by-products or seaweed — probably won't be edible at all, he said, though they will retain the environmental features.
"Edibility is a nice marketing vehicle, but we are using it very carefully," Bednarz said.
Wheat is considered one of the strongest allergens, and the main source of gluten, so it is not suitable for people suffering from wheat or gluten allergies and intolerances, and those suffering from Coeliac or Crohn's diseases,
He said there has been a correlation between media and social media interest in edible packaging and interest in the company's products, but Biotrem remains wary of focusing on it. "Recently there is a huge hype around edible food packaging, straws, cutlery or plates, and we won't be discussing other businesses' motives, but from our perspective it is a kind of selling point rather than the key feature of our products."
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