[caption id="attachment_23769" align="alignright" width="216" caption="SpudWare utensils are made from mostly potato starch and are designed for use in hot foods and liquids while remaining compostable."][/caption]

NORTH COAST -- Napa County resident and foodservice packaging supplier Steve Levine has seen the economic recession slow commercial orders for environmentally friendly products with a price premium just as demand was picking up, but he sees an opportunity to reinvigorate the market for the 400 such items his company carries by bringing production to California from Asia.

Mr. Levine and three other packaging wholesale veterans founded Excellent Packaging & Supply in Richmond in December 2003 to distribute conventional paper goods, petroleum-based plastic utensils and containers as well as cleaning supplies. But demand for green products made the company quickly look for “green” alternatives, many of which weren’t commercially feasible at the time.

The BioMass Packaging division now carries about 400 items from more than a dozen manufacturers, a number of which the company approached to design products. The first to market was the SpudWare line of bioplastic utensils, and 80 million have been sold since May 2005.

“Eighty percent of our products did not exist four or five years ago,” Mr. Levine said.

SpudWare utensils are made from 80 percent potato and other vegetable starches and 20 percent natural fillers such as shellfish-derived chitosan and glycerin. Last year, the heavyweight version was certified under ASTM International’s D6400 standard for plastics that can be turned to compost in 180 days. Other items in the product line use the same material.

Trouble is, some jurisdictions restrict use of biodegradable plastics based on what local composting companies can handle. For example, Seattle as of July 1 requires compostable products to be able to break down in less than two months.

Another BioMass product line is BagasseWare plates, cups, trays, bowls and take-out containers, designed to replace ones made from polystyrene foams such as Dow Chemicals’ Styrofoam. BagasseWare products are made from sugarcane, wheat, bamboo and rice harvest by-products. The line is certified compostable under the ASTM D6868 standard for biodegradable plastic coatings.

A third major product line are Ingeo’s NatureWorks clear and opaque biopolymer cups and catering trays. They are certified under ASTM D6400.

BioMass also carries compostable shopping, carryout and trash plastic bags, as well as bio-based industrial cleaning products.

Sales soared between 2006 and the economic collapse of fall 2008, making up most of the multimillion-dollar annual revenue, according to Mr. Levine. Products such as SpudWare won accolades in advertising trade journals and at international plastics conferences.

Plastic industry analysts projected market share of biopolymers to increase from 0.25 percent of all plastics to 1 percent by 2013.

“Since the economy died, demand for our product went down,” he said. “Many of our large corporate buyers said they would like to buy but had to be conscious of costs.”

For example, the SpudWare fork can cost 2 cents more each than a conventional disposable fork, or a premium of 30 percent. And BagasseWare plates, cups, trays, bowls and take-out containers for hot items cost four times as much as commonly available Styrofoam-like containers.

On the flip side, Ingeo NatureWorks clear cups and catering trays for cold items can cost about the same as standard versions.

Excellent Packaging continues to sell BioMass products to large companies such as Google, Genentech and Big & Small. North Coast commercial buyers include SooFoo and Moyo’s Frozen Yogurt Lounge in Petaluma, The Green Joint in Garberville, Big 4 Party Rental in Corte Madera, Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Outback Steakhouse in Marin City, Lydia’s Organics in Fairfax, Meadowood Napa Valley and longtime buyer V. Sattui Winery near St. Helena.

The company recently released a product catalog focused on marketing hospitality-related goods to the wine industry.

Complicating BioMass Packaging’s marketing have been quality-control, pricing stability and intellectual-property security problems with contract manufacturing in China, according to Mr. Levine.

“They sold to us at prices that were unsustainable,” said Mr. Levine. “And we just got an increase from a Chinese supplier of 30 percent, and we have no control over it.”

Better control over quality and intellectual property, closer proximity to agricultural feedstock for the products and the ability to sell to the U.S. government are major motivations for bringing production stateside, he said.

BioMass Packaging found a plastic injection molder in Southern California with idled equipment and is testing its tooling. It took about 18 months to secure the machinery from the overseas manufacturer that had designed and built it for the company.

“The mission of the company is to achieve a compostable waste stream, and the only way to do that is to make the products here, closer to sources of materials,” Mr. Levine said.

For more information, call 800-317-2737 or visit www.excellentpackaging.com. Alameda County Waste Management Authority has a list of compostable foodservice products suppliers at  www.stopwaste.org/docs/bioplastics_products-distrib.pdf.