Rob Parsons

Drastic Plastic

Local company wants to move beyond Styrofoam and plastics.

by Rob Parsons

May 01, 2008

Earth-unfriendly packaging

Styrofoam bento box take-out containers are as familiar to locals as surfing. Whether packed with noodles, sushi or loco moco, the Styrofoam bento is a local institution for the convenience of a grab-and-go meal. But one upstart local company wants to change all that.

Honolulu-based Styrophobia opened in January 2007, supplying biodegradable food service products. Beyond the catchy name and dazzling website, it's apparent that they're determined to make waves in Hawai`i and beyond as a green business advocating for sustainable local solutions to environmental problems.

Entrepreneurs Krista Ruchaber and Mike Elhoff, tired of seeing plastic containers and drink cups on beaches and around Oahu, created a company dedicated to earth-friendly packaging. They feature products made from cornstarch "bioplastics"-cutlery made of potato starch and plate lunch containers made of bagasse (sugar cane fiber). Unlike plastics, which may take eons to break down, these materials compost in just 30 to 180 days.

But more than providing a "green" renewable alternative to plastics and polystyrene-which are manufactured from petrochemicals-Styrophobia wants to educate the Hawai`i community. They want consumers to know about the toxicity of styrene and benzene, both contained in certain plastics, and ultimately help people make informed choices about what they purchase and consume.

To that end, Styrophobia has engaged in community outreach through schools, community events, beach cleanups, their website (www.styrophobia.com) and by talking with legislators. They recently provided biodegradable materials for Oahu's Kokua Festival-the annual highlight of Jack Johnson's Kokua Foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on environmental education-making it a "zero-waste" event.

In short, they are "doing a lot of extra-curricular things, and being philanthropic with our time," according to Ari Patz of Styrophobia. I recently spoke with Patz while he was on Maui:

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: What can you tell me about Styrophobia's mission, and what you hope to accomplish?

ARI PATZ: It's about Aloha `Aina, or love of the land. We want to help spread social awareness, really a better way of living. No other companies selling similar products in Hawai`i are doing this kind of community outreach. It's not easy for a young company, but we believe in what we're doing.

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: You've also been involved in supporting legislation that would ban Styrofoam.

ARI PATZ: It's already happened in San Francisco and Portland, but has met with resistance here. But Styrofoam is not made from a renewable source, and leaches the chemicals it contains. Though the ban on Styrofoam didn't go through this year, they [the state Legislature] did adopt a resolution. If that leads to PSAs [Public Service Announcements], that would be sexy.

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: Where are your biodegradable products made?

ARI PATZ: We are using materials made in Indonesia, Taiwan and China. Ideally, we'd like to produce these products locally. We're interested in talking further with [sugar cane companies] Gay & Robinson and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar to see about using their bagasse for local manufacturing. Sugar is also grown in the U.S. in Florida and Louisiana, but they aren't producing these products yet, either.

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: Are your products well received on Maui?

ARI PATZ: Our biggest customer is Pacific Whale Foundation. We just got a great response when we talked to Maui Community College [MCC]'s Culinary Department. Hopefully, we'll continue to find more interest and growth on Maui.

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: Part of your goal is to avoid throwaways, as we know that all the islands have landfill issues. How are you approaching this issue?

ARI PATZ: We would like to see composting make its way into the schools, at University of Hawai`i, Kauai Community College and MCC. It can also be linked with vermiculture, or worm composting. We've had a pilot-composting program with Hawaiian Earth Products [makers of Menehune Magic compost], but the Department of Health shut us down, mainly because there's food [residue] involved. But these issues have been tackled all over the world in Seattle, Europe and other places.

MAUI TIME WEEKLY: You're aware that Maui has tried to implement a limited ban on plastic bags, and that there is a public awareness campaign in Paia called the "No Mo' Plastic Bag Paia Project?"

ARI PATZ: Yes. That's great. Haleiwa is doing something similar and Kailua is just getting started. Also Kauai. There's really a growing awareness and we want to do our part with all of that.

Polystyrene is one of numerous petrochemical plastics derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Styrofoam is actually a brand name for a Dow Chemical polystyrene product patented in 1941, and has entered our vocabulary the way Kleenex and Xerox have done, as a generic term for the product or process.

In one form, polystyrene may be rigid, such as CD "jewel" cases and plastic cutlery. Foam "expanded" polystyrene, produced to trap up to 95 percent air within, was designed to provide insulation from heat and moisture, rendering it especially useful for food and beverage containers. Produce, fish, meats and prepared foods may all be commonly packaged in polystyrene foam trays, baskets, or containers, which then are dropped in the trash, destined for our landfills.

Maui County's proposed 2009 budget contains a $12 million request from the Solid Waste Division of the Department of Environmental Management, to implement Phase V of the Central Maui Landfill. It seems that Phase IV-B is filling up far more quickly than was projected.

Perhaps as much as 35 percent of items thrown away could be composted or recycled, especially if our county government invested in regional green waste drop-off/composting sites. One such pilot program has been operating in Central Kihei, operated by Maui Earth Compost. But county funds provided through a recycling grant are due to run out on May 31.

Meanwhile, Solid Waste Division is spending more than $150,000 each year to clean windblown debris at the landfill, much of it through contracts with Ka Lima O Maui. Maui's strong tradewinds regularly take plastic bags airborne and deposit them in nearby kiawe trees and cane fields.

You can also find plastic and Styrofoam on roadsides, in county parks and in the filters at wastewater treatment facilities.

Councilmember Michael Molina introduced draft legislation in June 2007 that would include a partial ban on plastic bags from large retail and commercial outlets throughout Maui County. After languishing in the council's Policy Committee for seven months without a hearing, it was moved to the Public Works and Facilities Committee.

Council members heard testimony in one meeting already this year, and invited a panel discussion in a second meeting in February. It's likely the proposal may come up for deliberation and possible action in June, according to Gary Saldana, Councilman Mike Molina's staff aide.

Had a bill at the state Legislature survived this year's session, Maui County wouldn't have had the ability to legally limit proliferation of plastic bags.

Senate Bill 651, draft legislation supported (some say introduced) by the plastics industry, would have effectively banned counties from imposing bans of this sort. Fortunately, it failed to pass out of committee last Friday and died.

Plastics have been vilified for years because of their harmful role in marine debris. Floating bits of plastic, large and small, fill our oceans and wash up on our shores. The North Pacific Gyre is a large area created by prevailing winds and currents, one of five large ocean gyres worldwide. Because of all the plastic flotsam and other debris, it's been nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Ranging over 500 miles in length, and studied since the mid 1980's, the gyre is estimated to hold 100 million tons of trash. Ocean researchers believe that 80 percent of the debris is land-based, while 20 percent comes from ships at sea.

Bits of plastic resemble ocean zooplanktons and are ingested by jellyfish, which are, in turn, consumed by sea turtles. Sea birds also scoop up colorful bits of plastic. Autopsies on birds in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands reveal that shearwaters, albatrosses and boobies sometimes have hundreds of pieces of plastic in their gullets, eventually leading to their death.

A certain amount of "gloom and doom" may be necessary to help motivate people to change their ways, "but it sells the least amount of plates," says Patz.

"Our every action impacts the whole of interconnected life on Earth," the Styrophobia website says in a section attributed to WorldCentric.org. "Our every day decisions of what we do, what we consume, where we buy, how we choose to live, what values we hold and promote creates the world and the communities we live in? Another world is possible and it is up to us to make it happen!"

Here in Hawai`i, we can choose to make that happen one bento box at a time.