New biodegradable material cuts landfill load
Last Updated November 23, 2006
By Denise Deveau
At first glance it might look like a simple, run-of-the-mill paper coffee cup. But according to Jennifer Wright, founder of Toronto-based consulting agency Green Shift, the world's first commercially viable biodegradable hot drink cup has been years in the making.
Jennifer Wright, founder of Toronto-based consulting agency Green Shift, holds a biodegradable cup.
The cup is an example of new "green" packaging materials that are designed to be kinder to the environment. Wright has been working on the project since the late 1990s, collaborating with researchers and coffee lovers at home and abroad to get just the right ingredients together to pull it off.
The key is the biodegradable liner, which is made from a vegetable-based resin. Although it's still a work in progress — the first iteration hit the market 18 months ago — Wright says she is "getting calls from the U.K., Japan, Israel and more asking about it."
Ian Cameron, director of business development at Ecosleeve in Brampton, Ont., which develops recyclable polystyrene coffee sleeves, says the liner has always been a major ecological problem. "Contrary to popular belief, coffee cups aren't recyclable or biodegradable because they have a plastic [polyethylene] layer that's bonded to the board," he said.
Manufacturers with a mission
Fully biodegradable coffee cups, cutlery and the like may not make this year's innovation glamour list, but popularizing eco-friendly packaging is a mission for a handful of dedicated consultants and entrepreneurs. However, they're the first to admit that it's an uphill battle.
The margins are low; making the switchover is expensive for manufacturers; and the supply of viable products for the market is pretty thin right now.
Wright says the only reason her consultancy got into sourcing and developing biodegradable products is that they simply weren't that readily available. "We found a huge roadblock in the market," she said. "It's only recently that companies got involved in manufacturing and importing them."
Getting the ball rolling means having to accept lower margins, she added.
Steve Johnston, business development manager at M2 Formulex Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy for the packaging and food and beverage industries, began his quest to bolster the eco-friendly packaging market two years ago after seeing the growth of the market in Asia and Europe: "They're a good five years ahead of us."
There is no shortage of innovation in the area.
These commercially viable biodegradable hot drink cups took years to perfect, offering an alternative to regular paper coffee cups that arenít recyclable or biodegradable because they have a polyethylene layer bonded to the cardboard.
Take bioplastics (PLA), which derived from plant sources such as corn or soybean oil (plastics are normally petroleum based) and widely used in Europe for bottling and similar applications. They show promise, but have their limitations. According to Johnston, who is working with a corn-based PLA, the product is not for hot food or beverages, and must be composted.
Starch-based packaging uses potato or tapioca starch to create a product that looks and feels like a cross between plastic and foam. The end product is a rigid package that can be used for products such as disposable plates and cutlery.
Fibre-based packaging is a versatile and affordable option to traditional packaging for non-rigid applications, Johnson says. The product is derived from sugar cane or corn fibre, using materials that are normally incinerated as waste.
There's also an environmentally safe additive for plastic resins that can turn the often maligned polystyrene into a fully biodegradable and recyclable product.
Hurdles to clear
All of these new materials could help reduce the amount of material going to landfills. But perhaps the biggest roadblock in getting all this to market is the fact that until demand for these alternatives reach critical mass, they cost more. Depending on the option, premiums can range anywhere from five per cent to as much as seven times the price of less-friendly alternatives.
Ken Wong, associate professor of marketing and business strategy at Queen's University in Kingston, says that even if people have the best of intentions, "most consumers won't pay a significant price premium for environmentally friendly products, let alone packages. They have to see a tangible reason."
Cameron notes that in some markets, such as coffee chains, the price difference doesn't even have to be significant to put people off a product. "If it's a couple of pennies more, they won't touch it. There's just not the critical mass for the average chains."
The good news is that there is some uptake from some business operators, government organizations, school boards and the like despite the "sticker shock" associated with more environmentally friendly packaging material.
Mark Murdoch, vice-president of management services Dana Hospitality Inc. in Oakville, Ont., says he's finding that more of his company's corporate customers are asking for biodegradable or compostable packaging for their foodservice operations. "They're the ones where environmental causes are part of their entire mantra," he said. "It's not done as a sideline."
Purists like the owners of Camros Organic Foods in Toronto are also keen to do what they can to create a market for biodegradable packaging. Manager Saeed Rouhani says the family-owned business is one of the only ones to use completely biodegradable materials for its take-out containers (they're made from sugar cane) and cutlery (potato starch).
"Sustainable packaging was always part of our business plan," he said. "Even though it costs five to seven times more than other products, we believe it requires a bit of sacrifice to get the industry to move in this direction."
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