CRAIG KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
An alternative to Styrofoam, Styrophobia specializes in biodegradeable takeout containers. Krista Ruchaber, managing director, and Ari Patz, marketing director, held a biodegradable cup and straw used by Uahi Island Grill in Kailua.
Eco-friendly takeout gaining momentum
From an upscale restaurant to a wine shop, plate lunch spot, bakery and lunch wagon, a green movement is quietly taking place in Hawaii's food-service industry.
More businesses are opting to do away with Styrofoam and plastic containers, opting instead for a biodegradable alternative made of bagasse, or sugar cane fiber, and cornstarch.
Honolulu-based Styrophobia is a distributor of the products, which range from utensils to straws, cups, plates, trays, takeout boxes and to-go bags. Recycled paper napkins are also available.
Some other companies distribute similar products in Hawaii, but Styrophobia has made it a mission.
Founder Krista Ruchaber launched the business in January as a way to convert the disposable market by offering an alternative to polystyrene and plastic products, as well as to empower individuals to make conscious choices.
"We each need to take responsibility and be conscious of our footprint," said Ruchaber, an environmentalist and acupuncturist. "Making small choices throughout the day to recycle, or better yet to reduce; bring our canvas bags to the grocery store, clean our coffee mug and reuse it each morning, support restaurants serving healthy foods and offering biodegradables."
Though it's barely a year old, Styrophobia now has a growing customer base which ranges from Town to Fujioka's Wine Times, Kalapawai Cafe in Kailua and Hokulani Bake Shop at Restaurant Row. The interest is spreading, mostly through word of mouth.
Chef Ed Kenney made a conscious decision to do away with Styrofoam when he first opened Town, and naturally, it was the same with Downtown.
He used to order the biodegradable products from California, but once he discovered a local distributor, he was able to eliminate the hassle of waiting for shipments to arrive.
"Food goes beyond pleasure of the palate," said Kenney, who also composts with worms and puts fryer oil in his biodiesel jeep. "It's all about knowledge and choice, and if you have the knowledge, you make a choice."
Using biodegradable takeout containers does end up costing more, he said, but it's also a small percentage of the overall budget.
The cornstarch cups and containers are actually clear and look and feel like plastic. The forks, spoons and knives also look like plastic, as well, but are thicker. The straws look like any other straws.
Lyle Fujioka of Fujioka's Wine Times stumbled upon the cups by serendipity.
When catering events with wine, Fujioka was looking for an alternative to renting glassware and plastic, which he said gives off a smell. When he first poured wine into a cornstarch cup, he said he found it to be "sweetly odorless" and neutral.
"There's nothing worse than to have acrylic mixing with wine, and then the nuances of any wine are completely wasted," he said. "What surprised me is the way the wine flowed from the cup, It was smooth."
Some new businesses, including Uahi Island Grill, a gourmet plate lunch restaurant in Kailua as well as Food For Thought, a healthy lunch wagon in Haleiwa, are starting off with sustainability built into their budgets.
Besides buying local produce, both eateries opted to go with Styrophobia.
"Restaurants create a lot of waste as it is, and we don't want to contribute any more," said Nani Nikcevich, manager of Uahi Island Grill. "We're very conscious of living in Hawaii, and when we found that there was another option, we went with it."
Likewise, Kelly Tsutsui, who just opened Food For Thought on the North Shore, said: "I wouldn't do without it. If I was going to feed people, I would have to feed them with something environmentally friendly."
At Lanikai Juice, owner Pablo Gonzalez says he'll offer customers a choice when they order smoothies. But he said there are some challenges to making the switch, because the biodegradable containers don't keep smoothies cold for long periods of time.
A Styrofoam clamshell costs somewhere between 12 to 15 cents apiece, whereas a biodegradable bagasse clamshell costs between 22 to 25 cents apiece. Ruchaber says the price can add up to 10 cents more per meal for the consumer.
While it can add up for a business doing large volumes, Styrophobia's survey of consumers found that most would not mind an extra 10 cents.
Eventually, Styrophobia's long-term goal is to produce its product here, with the involvement of local growers and manufacturers to eliminate shipping costs. The base for both products -- corn and sugarcane -- are already grown in Hawaii.
But the demand needs to reach a certain level in order to make it viable. The products now come from California.
Styrophobia does grassroots marketing by going to community events and beach cleanups.
While Styrofoam has been banned in Berkeley, Calif. and Portland, Ore., it has not been banned in Hawaii. Resolutions have been introduced at Maui County and Honolulu City Council, endorsing a ban on plastic bags for large supermarkets.
For Ruchaber, change starts with the individual consumer.
"Hawaii can be an example because we're an island economy, and we should be sustainable," said Ruchaber. "Hawaii has an opportunity to be a leader."
What's ending up in the nation's landfills every year:
64 billion paper cups
73 billion Styrofoam cups
190 billion plastic containers and bottles
...and the alternatives
What it is: Sugar cane fiber, after juice is extracted.
Products: Plates, cups, bowls, carryout clamshells and containers
Biodegrades in 30 to 90 days
Corn Starch (Bioplastic)
What it is: Similar to plastic, but made of cornstarch. PLA stands for Polyactide, derived from cornstarch.
Products: Utensils (forks, spoons, knives), cups, lids, carryout clamshells, deli containers, drinking straws, bags.
Biodegrades in 90 to 365 days