Portland’s upcoming ban on single-use plastic bags, which goes into effect in October, is one sign cities — and consumers — are moving away from petroleum-based plastic bags and food packaging. Growth in Oregon’s “biobased” food packaging industry — companies that use plant-based starches to manufacture bags, food containers, and tableware — is another.
Over the past few years, “sales growth has continued unabated to the extent we never really saw a recession,” says Buzz Chandler, president of Stalkmarket, a Portland-based company that makes tableware and food containers out of sugarcane fiber and other plants. Stalkmarket’s growth has been in the high double digits for the past few years, Chandler says, and the company, which got its start in 2003 selling to New Seasons Market, now sells its products in the U.K., Western Europe and Brazil.
Revenues at Trellis Earth, a Portland manufacturer of bioplastic bags and food containers, have increased every year since the company launched in 2005, says CEO Bill Collins. The company, which grossed $3 million in 2010, filed two patent applications for new bioplastic technologies in July. It also signed an agreement with a New York investment bank to underwrite a Nasdaq IPO aimed at financing a new manufacturing facility in Wilsonville, Collins says.
Fueled by concerns about the economic and environmental costs of oil, the plant-based industry faces several hurdles. One problem is that not all biobased products are easily compostable or recyclable. Nor are there clear standards defining what is or isn’t compostable, an important tool for companies who want to capitalize on municipal plastics bans or food composting initiatives.
Although national certifying organizations exist, many cities and waste management facilities develop their own criteria for “compostability.” A case in point is the Recology Inc. facility in North Plains, which began taking food scraps from Portland last year and is developing a list of acceptable bioplastic products. Recology is looking for materials that break down in 60 days, “and we would like to go to 40,” says Chris Choate, Recology’s director and vice president of technology. A San Francisco-based company, Recology earned $538.5 million in 2010, up from $452.7 million in 2006.
Higher cost is another challenge, but that’s beginning to change. One of Trellis’ patent applications covers a bioplastic that uses agricultural industry byproducts such as wheat chaff and soybean hulls. The product doesn’t rely on a food source, which brings the price down and helps make plant-based products a “sustainable solution to the problems created by oil,” Collins says.