Disposables maker may be here to stay

EarthShell seems finally to be bringing its product to shelves

July 21, 2006|By ALLISON CONNOLLY | ALLISON CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

It seemed like a natural - disposable food packaging that would decompose instead of languishing for years in the nation's overflowing landfills. But EarthShell Corp. has spent more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to bring various versions of its biodegradable products to market, only to see one deal after another fall apart.

Now it looks like the 14-year-old Lutherville-based company's throw-away plates and bowls will soon be on the shelves of some of the nation's best-known retailers.

Made from potatoes, corn and ground limestone, EarthShell's disposable dishes are microwave-safe and compostable. EarthShell ware has gotten a lot of interest from environmentally minded consumers and corporations, and was recommended in Good Housekeeping's July issue as one of "50 easy ways to go green." But the company has failed to translate that interest into revenue, despite coming close a number of times.

In 1997, the company began working with McDonald's to produce foam clamshells for the Big Mac, but that ended in 2003 when EarthShell's manufacturing partner, Sweetheart Cup Co., was sold to Solo Cup Co. EarthShell managed to find another manufacturing partner, Green Earth Packaging, but that relationship, too, dissolved. Meanwhile, EarthShell continued borrowing millions of dollars to stay afloat, and management changed several times. But its backers never gave up.

This time is different, said Chief Executive Officer Vincent J. Truant, a former Sweetheart executive who was promoted to the top job in September.

EarthShell has signed on a handful of retailers, ranging from giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to upscale regional grocer Wegmans, to stock its 9-inch plates and 12-ounce bowls on store shelves. EarthShell is also in the midst of merger talks with its manufacturing partner, ReNewable Products Inc., which would give it its own manufacturing plant and more control of its destiny.

"It really is a new beginning for the company," Truant said.

Other companies also make compostable dishware - from plates and cups to cutlery - using a variety of ingredients, including corn, sugar cane, wheat and even tapioca. But it is still a small segment of the annual disposable packaging market, which Truant estimates to be $13 billion in the U.S. and $30 billion worldwide.

EarthShell's plates and bowls will be the first compostable dishware sold by Wegmans, said spokeswoman Jo Natale. "We have seen a growing demand from customers for products that are environmentally friendly, whether it's organic produce or biodegradable dinnerware," Natale said. "We think there's a market for it."

Unlike other eco-friendly products that cost more than mainstream competitors, Truant said EarthShell products can be competitively priced because they are made from renewable crops and not petroleum-based resins like polystyrene, which are tied to increasing oil prices. Truant estimates corn sells for 15 cents a pound and potato starch about 25 cents a pound, while polystyrene runs between 60 cents and 80 cents a pound.

The company is not only trying to appeal to consumers who care about the environment. Truant said ballparks, hospitals and other large producers of food waste would find the product appealing. The food and containers could be tossed into the garbage and both would decompose.

It would solve a growing problem at the nation's landfills. Packaging and containers accounted for nearly a third of the 236 million tons of solid waste dumped into landfills in 2003, the latest year for which data are available, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

And that makes EarthShell's concept all the more intriguing, said Steven Mojo, executive director of New York City-based Biodegradable Products Institute.

After a visit to EarthShell's offices this month, Mojo said the company seems to have overcome its start-up problems and is ready to manufacture. "To me it's a company that has a very interesting technology," he said. "They've turned the corner."

Jacquelyn Ottman, a green marketing consultant based in New York City, said consumers are more environmentally conscious than they've ever been, especially with oil prices rising sharply and heightened concern about global warming. And more are making choices based on those concerns.

"They feel they're doing their bit because they're not buying petroleum-based products," she said about EarthShell consumers.

However, at the supermarket, Ottman said, price still matters. Generally, people won't pay a premium for a compostable plate, she said.

EarthShell worked with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service to develop the right formula for the "batter" of vegetable starch, limestone and water to be effective and cost-efficient. The average cost of the bowls and plates is 6 cents each.

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