Bio-good to go
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
Forks and carryout bags made from corn starch. Plates and cups made from sugar cane fibers. These are the new eco-friendly alternatives that two Honolulu "styrophobe" entrepreneurs hope will combat the growing mountains of non-biodegradable polystyrene used by the millions in our local plate-lunch culture.
As the state's Hawaii 2050 task force looks at ways to ensure a sustainable future for the Islands, Krista Ruchaber and Mike Elhoff's new company, Styrophobia, aims to eliminate the use of polystyrene — known popularly by manufacturer Dow Chemical Company's brand name, Styrofoam — as the premier distributor of biodegradable containers and utensils.
"We're trying to get the word out so that consumers know this is available and they can start requesting it. It's the demand that's really going to cause change," said Ruchaber, who also works as an acupuncturist.
"When I moved to Hawai'i seven years ago and saw so much of the Styrofoam, I was shocked. It's such a beautiful place yet all of the styro and the plastics are coming on to the beaches," she said.
What's so bad about polystyrene, anyway? It keeps food warm (or cold) and it's cheap.
More than 73 billion polystyrene foam plates and cups are thrown away every year, stuffing landfills. And while they eventually break into small pieces, the material never fully biodegrades. The foam pieces — or entire containers — also find their way into streams and the ocean, especially after a good rain shower.
Another problem: Polystyrene is made from petroleum chemicals or additives. Some studies suggest that those chemicals may leak into foods. And some of those chemicals affect the reproductive systems of humans and animals, as has been reported in studies and books such as Theo Colborne's "Our Stolen Future."
These alarming facts have prompted more than 100 cities and local jurisdictions, such as Portland, Ore., and Berkeley, Calif., to ban polystyrene foam. Earlier this month, San Francisco also banned polystyrene.
Biodegradable-container businesses have found natural markets in cities that have banned Styrofoam. Here in Hawai'i, however, where polystyrene is plentiful and cheap, Styrophobia faces the challenge of creating its own market, just as alternative-fuel company Pacific Biodiesel is forging its own niche.
"We were determined, regardless," Ruchaber said. "We said, 'Let's figure out how to make this happen and find the demand.' "
Ruchaber and Elhoff found an ecoproducts distributor in the San Francisco Bay area and partnered with the company to bring the products to Hawai'i in bulk.
"Through friends and the way Hawai'i is, we had people coming to us before we were even ready," Ruchaber said.
One of those customers was restauranteur Ed Kenney, owner of Town in Kaimuki and the new Downtown in the Hawai'i State Art Museum.
"If there is a green restaurant in Honolulu, it's probably our restaurants. ... It has always been our goal to utilize sustainable, biodegradable to-go products," said Kenney, who signed on to give his used cooking oil to Pacific Biodiesel when he opened Town in 2005 (the restaurant even pays a small fee for the honor).
Before learning about Styrophobia, "we went direct to companies in California and it gets really expensive," said Kenney.
Ruchaber and Elhoff thought price would probably be their biggest barrier to success.
"We're consciously keeping our prices as bottom line as we can, right now," said Ruchaber.
A takeout order using biodegradable products costs about 15 cents to 20 cents more than the typical styro-and-plastic setup, said Elhoff, a price difference that restaurants can easily pass on to customers.
The difference between biodegradable utensils and plastic is about 2 cents to 4 cents, he said. And takeout containers made from bagasse — sugar cane fiber — are about 12 cents more than the usual styro containers.
"We didn't labor over (cost) for too long because it's important to us," Kenney said. "We may have charged a little more than others might, but after looking at our menu, it doesn't seem like we do. The place where it sacrifices is probably our profit margin."
Ruchaber believes most customers won't mind paying a few cents more per lunch plate if they know they are helping the environment.
While swapping out Styrofoam for biodegradable products is progress, she says, it's not the ultimate answer.
"Really this is a step. We have these bioproducts, but ultimately that's not what we're trying to promote," she said. "What we all have to be doing is thinking differently. We need to take our coffee cup and reuse that. We need to take our canvas bags to the store."
Reach Loren Moreno at email@example.com.