Innovating Better Compostable Dinnerware

Company taps OSU bioplastics expertise, new lab equipment

EcNow Tech, a small bioplastics company in Albany, Ore., has been awarded commercialization funding from Oregon BEST to partner with an Oregon State University lab in the development of new combinations of biomaterials for its compostable utensils, including next-generation biocomposites for Springfield, Ore.-based So Delicious Dairy Free.

The project is aimed at reducing the cost of compostable products by innovating new mixes of biopolymer materials with local feedstocks to create biocomposites that can better compete on price point and durability with petroleum based products.

Chris Vitello, President of EcNow Tech, believes the project could spark a green materials manufacturing boom in Oregon, home to potential bioplastics feedstocks ranging from sugar beets, grass seed straw and wood pulp to waste streams from the state's wineries and breweries.

"As petroleum becomes more and more scarce, we're going to see an evolution to more and more bioplastics used in packaging and other applications," said Vitello, who logged 25 years as a plastics engineer in the medical and electronics fields, including at HP in Corvallis, before founding EcNow Tech. "Our vision in working with OSU is to develop new combinations of materials for the future based on locally sourced feedstocks. It's a huge manufacturing opportunity for our company and for Oregon as a whole, and I believe we're at the forefront of this wave."

The Oregon BEST funds are providing research expertise and enabling the purchase of bioplastics research equipment at Oregon State University's Green Building Materials Laboratory, an Oregon BEST lab, where both graduate and undergraduate students on the project are developing and testing new formulas.

Compostable, single-use products must maintain their physical integrity under a wide range of thermal conditions (from hot coffee to ice cream) and compete on price.

"Thanks to Oregon BEST, we now have access to experts and equipment at a world-class university – something many small companies don't have," Vitello said. "Oregon BEST helped us connect with this huge capability at OSU, and expand the scope of our partnership with So Delicious Dairy Free."

So Delicious Dairy Free, makers of dairy-free milks, ice creams and culture products, started working with EcNow Tech in search of a compostable biocomposite stick the company could freeze in single-serve frozen dessert bars to replace wooden sticks, which can impact flavor.

"We're pleased to be a part of this Oregon BEST-funded project because we place extremely high importance on packaging our products using earth-friendly materials," said Hansel New, Sustainability Manager at So Delicious Dairy Free. "This is really a win-win-win project that's helping Oregon companies, Oregon university faculty and students and the planet."

Conventional plastics use carbon from fossil fuels to form polymer chains, but in bioplastics the petroleum-based carbon is replaced with plant-based carbon like Poly(lactic acid) (PLA) or Thermoplastic Starch (TPS), which are derived from renewable sources like corn starch, tapioca root, sugarcane or other plant materials and breaks down when composted.

Depending on the type of filler used in plant-based biocomposites, the physical properties of the final product – and the production costs – can vary.

"We believe there is very significant potential in this area, because of the lack of U.S. suppliers that are cost-competitive," said John Simonsen, a professor in the OSU Dept. of Wood Science and Engineering who is leading the OSU research team. "In order to bring down the cost while retaining the renewable features people want, we're looking at different polymers, feedstocks, and additives. It's not a simple problem, but we already have some good leads that look promising."

Simonsen said the Green Building Materials Lab already has more than a quarter million dollars worth of bioplastics research tools in place. The Oregon BEST funding will add two additional pieces of equipment: an infrared spectrometer mounted to a microscope that will improve investigation of microstructures in bioplastics and a pelletizer that can be attached to the existing extruder to make the injection molding process at the lab more efficient.

“This project is great on many fronts, because we are directly supporting product innovation at two Oregon companies via access to both deep technical expertise and equipment while adding research capacity to the Green Building Materials Lab at OSU,” said David Kenney, President & Executive Director of Oregon BEST. “Given the wide range of available feedstocks from Oregon’s natural resources, and our state’s leadership in cleantech innovation, we are very pleased to make this investment in biocomposites manufacturing capability.”

“This project is beneficial on many fronts,” said David Kenney, President and Executive Director of Oregon BEST. “We are directly supporting product innovation at two Oregon companies via access to deep technical expertise and equipment, while adding research capacity to the Green Building Materials Lab at OSU. Given the wide range of available feedstocks from Oregon’s natural resources, and our state’s leadership in cleantech innovation, we are very pleased to make this investment in biocomposites manufacturing capability.”

Vitello's long-term mission is to one day replace all the petroleum-based plastic packaging – from to-go cup lids and plastic forks, to the nearly indestructible plastic that encases almost everything on store shelves – with locally sourced bioplastics that can be composted instead of filling landfills.

"Some companies with vision are willing to spend the approximately 20 percent extra that bioplastics currently cost," he said. "And when they do, and advertise their use of compostable materials, they generally see an uptick in business."

But for businesses without this awareness and vision, Vitello wants to drive down the cost difference between petroleum based products and bioplastics. "If we can do that, you'll see a huge shift in the market," he said.

SOURCES: David Kenney, Oregon BEST, 503-725-9849; Chris Vitello, EcNow Tech, 541-207-3480; John Simonsen, Oregon State University, 541-737-4217; Hansel New, So Delicious Diary Free, 541-913-7529

About EcNow Tech
Through its local and worldwide manufacturing and sources, EcNow Tech provides compostable food service products and packaging solutions with a focus on the lowest carbon footprint. With the belief that compostable and recycled products with commercial composting and digestion are the wave of the future, the company provides custom injection molding, packag­ing design and assembly services to its customers worldwide.

About So Delicious Dairy Free
Based in Eugene, Oregon since 1988, So Delicious® Dairy Free is privately held and provides consumers with the broadest selection of delicious alternatives to dairy-based foods and beverages. Ideal for 50 million lactose intolerant Americans and millions of other fans with a variety of food sensitivities, So Delicious® Dairy Free products are proud to offer truly delicious solutions across numerous categories for people with special dietary needs. All products are 100 percent plant based and 100 percent Non-GMO Project Verified with no artificial sweeteners, trans-fats or hydrogenated oils, and many are made with certified organic ingredients. So Delicious® Dairy Free sells products including dairy-free frozen desserts, beverages, cultured products, coffee creamers, and more.