Disposable Dishes with Ethical Elegance
By Lorrie Baumann
Disposable dinnerware and cutlery, once despised as symbols of heedless consumerism and environmental impacts, have become more socially acceptable in recent years among consumers who let their consciences drive their buying choices. A few manufacturers are now producing high-quality, beautifully designed single-use products that are passing muster among those consumers. Those products include Aspenware cutlery, bambu Veneerware® and WASARA pulp-molded dinnerware. All of these brands offer aesthetically excellent products that meet internationally recognized standards for safety, environmental responsibility and compostability and that are accepted by composting facilities in the growing number of American cities that have adopted municipal composting programs.
bambu was the first to introduce the bamboo plate10 years ago, says Chief Executive Officer Jeff Delkin. “At that time, it was featured in Fortune magazine as one of the best new products,” he says. “A decade ago, we were ahead of our time. A bamboo plate was a new thing.”
Delkin and his partner live in China, close to where the bamboo that’s used to make the bambu Veneerware is grown. They recognized then that there was a real need for green, elegant disposable dinnerware, in spite of the market’s disdain at that time for disposables. “We wanted to be the better paper plate,” he says. “We created a better, more elegant disposable plate.” To that end, bambu’s quality control inspectors are on-site in the factory and at the product source to make sure that the products meet world-class standards for product quality and the employees’ working conditions. “We couldn’t create the products we do without being at the source,” Delkin says.
bambu Veneerware is the only bamboo plate on the market whose source material is certified to be free of any kind of chemicals or pesticides, and it’s certified under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred program. “Our plates are made from certified organic sources,” Delkin says. “We are the only product to receive this designation, which is audited annually by IMO Switzerland.”
The product has also been accepted for its compostability by the Cedar Grove composting facility in Washington, the country’s largest, and at the Berkeley Composting Center in California. “You’re only as good as your source,” Delkin says. “What’s really nice – and we feel good about it – is that people can use disposables, and they can be clean and green.”
bambu Veneerware is currently sold in Whole Foods and Dean and DeLuca stores, grocery stores around the country, and also to caterers, schools, hotels, and foodservice. “These products are proved and approved,” Delkin says. “Acceptance is broad and wide among schools, caterers, hotels and event planners as well as in retail stores.” Suggested retail prices range from $7.50 for an eight-pack of 7-inch plates up to $13 for the eight-pack of 11-inch plates. Cutlery comes in a pack of 24 pieces for $10. Veneerware is also sold in larger bulk sizes.
Another line of compostable dinnerware that’s winning raves for its elegance is WASARA, for which online merchant Branch is the exclusive North American importer. Branch CEO Paul Donald founded the company in 2005, before “sustainability” was the buzz word on everyone’s tongue. “I realized that there was not any place online that was bringing together products that were both sustainable and beautiful,” he says. “I wanted to create a marketplace for things that I would actually want.” Veneerware products from bambu as well as WASARA pulp-molded dinnerware pieces are among the products offered by Branch at www.BranchHome.com. “We started out as an online retailer of housewares and giftware. It seemed to me that since we were all about sustainability, so should be our dinnerware,” Donald recalls. “We went on the hunt for sustainable dinnerware for a pop-up event, and then we decided to offer it in the store. We found that it sold really well. It wasn’t what I had set out to do, but you follow your business where it goes.”
Sales for the WASARA line have grown steadily since Branch introduced the products in 2009. “It really fit with what we were trying to do with Branch: Our motto is, ‘Design first; sustainable always,” Donald says. “It was gorgeous, and it happened to check all the green boxes.”
The WASARA products, designed in Japan and made in China, are formed in molds from plant fibers, primarily bagasse, the waste remaining from sugar cane after the sugar has been extracted. “Previously, the bagasse was burned,” Donald says. The other fibers included in the pulp mix come from bamboo and reeds, which are mixed together with the bagasse into a pulp and pumped into the molds, resulting in shapes that can’t be made any other way. It doesn’t just look beautiful – it also performs, with cups that even stand up to hot liquids.
The factory where WASARA is made is certified to internationally recognized standards for environmental and labor protection and complies with all local and regional laws. The dinnerware itself is USDA approved, Donald says. “I’ve personally been to this factory,” he says. “I demanded that I got to go to the factory and see the whole process. I was hugely impressed with what I saw. This felt like something I could have seen in the U.S. in terms of the way it was run.”
WASARA retails for $5.95 for a package of six medium-size plates, $7.95 for a package of six dinner plates, and $9.95 for a package of six tumblers. All of the items are lab-tested and certified to break down quickly into a material that will support growth of new plant material. “You can throw it all in a green bin or into your backyard compost,” Donald says. “You get the elegance without sacrificing the sustainability.”
Environmental sustainability is only one of the sustainability goals at Aspenware, which makes eating utensils from hardwood logs cut down during softwood logging operations and sold as salvage and from wood harvested according to traditional sustainability practices from the tribal reserves of Canada’s First Nations. “We only do three things, and we try to do them well. We make a fork, knife and spoon that actually work,” says Aspenware Director Michael Fedchyshyn. “The utensils are made to look good, feel good, perform well and still to be cost-effective from a single-use point of view.”
About 50 percent of the wood fiber used to make the utensils is harvested as a by-product of softwood logging operations. The aspen and birch trees are cut down because they’re in the way of softwood logging operations and have few economic end uses, so if they couldn’t be sold, they’d just be left to rot or burnt. That’s where Aspenware comes in. The company buys those logs as well as other logs that are salvaged from clearing for power line construction and similar activities and uses them to make the utensils. The other 50 percent of the wood fiber used by the company comes from First Nations suppliers who harvest the trees from their tribal reserves for a much-needed source of income for Canadian aboriginal communities in rural parts of the country. “The First Nations suppliers are able to accrue about 50 percent of the value of the product in the supply chain,” Fedchyshyn says. “They’re able to capture a lot of the value that we bring to the market.”
Wood harvesting on the First Nations reserves takes place under both Canadian government-mandated sustainability regulations as well as traditional sustainability sensibilities, Fedchyshyn says. “They’re able to do it on a scale that works, given the size of the market and the capacity of the communities to produce the material,” he says. “The communities are remote, and that works for us. We need to understand that Aspenware uses very little wood – one tree will turn into about 20,000 pieces of cutlery…. Our yield is so high on an individual tree that the low total volume of wood we require is bite-size enough that the First Nations can take it on, and so it fits into our business model perfectly to partner with them to do this.”
Aspenware is sold in Crate & Barrel stores nationwide as well as in other retail stores, and because it’s wood, it’s fully compostable and is accepted at all composting facilities. Suggested retail price for a 12-piece package is around $3 to $4. “In our facility, people are paid a fair wage and they’re treated with dignity and respect, ,” Fedchyshyn says. “Manufacturing domestically is the right thing to do, frankly, and I don’t think there’s anyone else in the industry who’s doing this…. Everything we do is subject to oversight, transparency and an ethical philosophy that’s unique in the marketplace.”