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Compostableware that leaves the others far behind

| Wednesday June 18th, 2008 | 27 Comments

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These days, “compostableware” is becoming increasingly common. Whether it’s your to go box, or the lidded soup bowl, or the bio plastic cups for your drinks. And yet, something’s not quite right. That soup bowl starts to bend. The to go box gets soggy. The cup is made from corn, which, GMO or not, is unsustainable and responsible for many issues both agricultural and economic in our society today.
And that’s just the beginning.
Many of those benign looking bowls and plates utilize chemical binders (as much as 40% by weight) to hold their shape, and when exposed to heat, begin to release those binders into what you eat. Well then, what can an environmentally conscious eater of food do? One option that I recently learned of is Verterra.
Verterra have created what is, in my experience, the slam dunk of bio based serviceware: Their plates are made 100% from fallen leaves and water. Nothing else. And they can be used in an oven, microwaved, have hot fluids in them, be refrigerated, even reused. Really? Yes. How?


In conversation with Michael Dwork, CEO of Verterra, I found that they have learned well how to take advantage of what nature already provides. They use three layers of leaves: The top one has a thick wax cuticle, providing water resistance. The bottom is sanded so that it’s quite fibrous, a layer of first defense, able to absorb moisture, preventing premature disintigration. And the middle layer is thick with sap.
Steam is applied, the leaves are shaped, and the sap leaf layer bonds all of them together. Follow that with repeated hot and cold sessions, and much like tempering steel, this toughens the package, to one that can be used in ways that many of their plastic or lesser bio based counterparts could only dream of.
As for their biodegradability, they say it takes 3 months, even though two tests have shown a shorter time. It’s a move like this, rather than claiming the lowest result, that is indicative of the kind of company Verterra is. At their factory in South Asia, “…employees receive fair wages in safe working conditions and are provided access to healthcare.”
And according to Dwork, his apartment in NYC uses nearly the equivalent of the whole Verterra factory. Without going into industry manufacturing secrets, the heating and cooling process requires little energy to maintain the needed temperatures. And in comparison to the amount of energy needed to sort, grind, melt and re-form plastic into desired shapes for recycled material based products, it’s clear to see how Verterra’s simple, clean method (which includes recirculating that steam water) is the more sustainable manufacturing process.
And the result? Quite stylish, durable, truly compostable, non toxic serviceware, using resources that would otherwise burned as waste. An awesome feat that I think should be widely supported, by us as consumers, by restaurants in search of an attractive option to their current offerings, and by corporate lunch rooms, a source of a great deal of waste in our country.
Readers: What other bio based replacements for unsustainable options have you enjoyed? Have you had a chance to use Verterra products? What’s your take?
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. His overarching talent is “bottom lining” complex ideas, in a way that is understandable and accessible to a variety of audiences, internal and external to a company.


▼▼▼      27 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Dave Shires

    Scott – I think you’re missing it a bit. These products are made from material that would otherwise have been burned at the side of the road in India, plus they’re employing people, plus they can be used multiple times. I definitely encourage durability in products, but I think these are a great solution to some needs.

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    Well put Dave. When situations call for non permanent eating utensils (ie a festival, a conference, etc) something like this, that makes use of resources otherwise disposed of and creating additional emissions, and decomposes after disposal, is a great option.

  • http://www.southface.org Chris Theal

    Whether one takes the long term inevitable view that yes, we must be free of disposable anything–in the meantime the reality is that most people change their ways slowly. I am employed by a building science/energy efficiency non-profit and we wrestle over this kind of detail regularly. Hosting events for mainstream clientele, you’d be surprised how many folks will refuse drinking water if it didn’t come in a bottle, for instance. Does the transport fuel and dishwashing energy justify using durable place settings for off site events when the refuse can be much more easily tossed along with food waste into our compost pile instead? We use the compost for vegetable gardens anyway. So, there’s no black and white comparison in the present though I think we all see the ultimate requirements of sustainability as being largely non-negotiable. I’d rather get 1000 people to wake up and take baby steps toward a greener lifestyle than be alone in the wilderness with one or two others that have zero ecological impact, but zero influence on the masses. A pickle to be sure. Anyway, I have researched compostableware extensively and this does indeed sound like a grand-slam solution. I’ll be curious to see if it is verifiable that the plant oils/waxes, etc… are indeed food safe! There are many organic and natural plant chemicals that are quite unhealthy for particular uses. Chrysanthemum-based insecticide, for example.
    In solidarity,
    Chris Theal
    http://www.southface.org

  • http://www.turninghoustongreen.com Stephanie Edwards-Musa

    These plates sound great! I ran in to some Single Use Bamboo plates the other day labeled Eco Friendly. ????
    I like the idea of compostable products, but how many people acutally compost it? I wonder..
    Thanks for the update on these plates. I’ll keep my eyes out.

  • ecopundit

    So, what’s their distribution system? Can I tell a conference organizaer to tell her/his caterer to insist on these utensils? What’s the relative cost when compared to alternatives … and where are all those data readily available? (are they?)

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    I’ll see if I can get the CEO to chime in on this. Great discussion, all!

  • http://www.verterra.com Michael Dwork

    Hi all, I am the founder of this company, and I just wanted to jump in and address a few of these issues, but first I am glad to see that this product is driving an important conversation, and as Chris pointed out there are no black and white answer in sustainability. there are people out there that do not use any single use products and I applaud them, but there are also those that want the convenience. We view our product as a step forward in that it is made from fallen leave that would have been burned, use no chemicals and are compostable in home composters or industrial composting facilities. Is this a solution to the world’s problems? Absolutely not, but it is a lower impact option, and I would ask naysayser to please look at it like that. A plate made from oil that will be fodder for landfill or a VerTerra plate made from leaves that will compost.
    So that you all understand the point of view we had in creating VerTerra, my team and I spent 2 years working with many materials and developed this new one using only fallen leaves steam heat and pressure to prove that you can have a sustainably produced product that was beautiful (in opposition to the dark brown recycled paper products), with NO chemicals glues or bonding agents, with better functionality (oven, fridge and microwave safe). Currently 8% of all oil is farmed into plastic and 3% is used for single use items, to us this was unacceptable.
    In a comparison to permenent dishes, the ones that we buy for home use are very well made, the ones used in industrial settings are not that well made, and they typically last 5-10 months before they chip or break and can no longer be used. The washers for these machines are rarely filled to capacity and are old and inefficient. The detergents used on dishes need to be treated in the waste stream, and there are the general issues of water use and electricity.
    We realized that the traditional paper and plastic products as well as broken perm plates end up in landfill, we hope that by offering people convenience and the ability to compost food and plate together, there is a better chance that they will.
    In regards to concerns of safty, we have had each of the types of leaves we use tested individually as well as our finished product tested for any and all likely health concerns. As well we have had all the testing done on our product for compostability.
    I hope this addresses the concerns above, if I missed something please do feel free to list specific questions again.

  • Scott M. Kruse

    Single-use products are a serious problem, not a solution. We are entering “Peak Everything” and the rule is “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” There is no room for single use products. Everything must be sustainable or “least cost, end use” (long-term). Cheap oil made us think products should be “too cheap to meter.” These products are archaic thinking.

  • JM gonic

    Hi Michael, I applaud the innovation here to a much better offering than plastic.
    What about expanding this into an idustrial packaging solution ? Maybe a type of cardboard alternative that can be composed after used instead of made into pulp and recycled ?

  • http://www.verterra.com Michael Dwork

    Eventualy we would like to expand into other products but for now we will just focus on making the best dishware.

  • pdq1966

    Have seen the plates and really liked them…until I saw the price…ouch. In order to compete in the marketplace they need to drop their price 5x. When I was introduced to them they were portrayed as being “dishwasher” safe. They seem like they would crack with high pressure water, but I could be wrong. Couldn’t talk the company I was working with to purchase a few even though they really liked them, because of $/plate.

  • Paulette

    Thank you for a great article, about a great product.

  • Paulette

    Thank you for a great article, about a great product.

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    It is an issue, but for durable, non toxic, cleanly made product, I think they’re worth the cost. We pay more for cage free eggs, fair trade coffee, and eco friendly clothing, why not for some stylish,unique plates?

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    Also, depending on the volume, I believe the prices are malleable.

  • pricklypear

    I think this is great. Since I live in the U.S. my question is if there is a plan to open a plant and manufacture in the U.S.?
    I’m not a “disposable” person, but once in a blue moon there is a need and I would definitely prefer these over petroleum based product.
    That said… I would also avoid these because they are not manufactured in the U.S., and I would probably find a way NOT to use disposables.
    And as a side note… those leaves that were used to make these compostable dishes COULD have been used to make plain old compost. Locally. I’m not saying they WOULD have… just that they COULD.
    And I’m not singling out Verterra (well, actually I guess I am since this post is about them..), but I’m also getting a bit leery and tired of this line “…employees receive fair wages in safe working conditions and are provided access to healthcare.” Verterra may be the best employer on the planet… I really have no idea… but I’m going to need something more than that line to convince me.

  • persimmon

    I’m not really sure how this company can say they spent 2 years developing this and then be awarded all these awards when this is something that has been done in India for years. There are plenty of other companies doing this. Just google it.

  • Vijay

    Yep!! Just search for Arecanut! These plates are made form Arecanut Sheath… and have been used in India for ages…

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    The Verterra site says that the idea was inspired by Indian food vendors using leaf based plates, nothing hidden about that.
    I’ve used leaf based plates years before, and while quaint, they aren’t good for much more than the immediate use. These, I can now say from experience, are tough, durable, and can be washed and reused. I inquired, and found that some people have reused them 20 times. And aesthetically they are the best I’ve seen yet, and I’ve used a lot of bioware in my day.

  • Erin

    I run a small taqueria and recently made the decision to use compostable plates, bowls, cold cups and hot cups. We are simply unable (no matter how hard I try to figure it out) able to use reuseable dishes, as we set up once a week at a farmers market and have very limited seating and washing capacity. The stuff I have comes from a local distributor but is shipped via Colorado and China. It is made of corn. Where I live we have superb community composting facilities and I have no problem imagining these bio-degrading as planned.
    I was pleased with this decision until I heard a feature on the radio today, discussing the merits of plastic vs. these types of products. While one gentleman discussed the problems with plastic (it never goes away!), another scientist made a compelling argument against corn based compostable products that take much more energy to produce, take valuable farmland from food production, place too much emphasis on an already over produced crop and generate a great deal of carbon emissions, more than plastic production generates. I hate the thought of traditional plastic adding to the landfill but now am giving pause to my earlier decision. If this scientist is right, why wouldn’t I save my money and go with a simple paper plate (do you think I could find unbleached?) that should rot quickly and traditional plastic cups? I would likely stick with the compostable bowls and hot cups as I can’t stomach styrofoam….
    Any advice? I am really torn up! I am trying to make a responsible decision and provide some leadership in this area.

  • rambanita

    Hi, Find it interesting to read about this, since we are the company that developed this product commonly known as a bioplate , over 14 years ago.The initiative was actually started to give work to farmers who had formerly been collecting areca nuts, and due to the falling market and tough competition were loosing their livliehoods.In answer to the person who said he is sick of the Fair Wages Line, I am in agreeance, and that is why “this” initiative go to http://www.ecofriendunit.com is the topper here.
    Its the business model that is the star of the SHOW, not so much the product, which surely is fantastic, since it turns a waste product into a useful and enviromentaly friendly product and the bonus is, by supporting a product such as this we give the third world an opportunity to gain self respect by supporting their handwork, without having to give CHARITY.
    While there is no doubt Michale Dwork is a savvy marketing person, its not fair that he claims any credit for “Developing this product”
    The testing for arket viability was done long long before Michale came along, and in fact our initiative now supports 300 families, and has resulted in may carbon companies.I say carbon, becasue we have started a business model that can be replicated,and its a win win situation for the Villagers, the enviroment and the consumer…
    So we dont mind the copy cats,
    BUT
    Credit should go to the innovators, who toiled long and hard before anyone gave a damn about the enviroment,Please do contact me if you wish to know more…

  • rambanita

    CORRECTION to my above post
    ” 3000 “families, are supported,”
    and we dont operate from facories, we run our supply chain throughout the village network.Ie Simple people, leading simples lives making a simle product.
    do contact me if you wish to know more.
    rambanita@gmail.com

  • Anonymous

    Critique of Michael Dwork, founder of Verterra.
    By Richard – Murwillumbah, Australia.
    I am an occasional reader of Time magazine and stumbled upon a business article by Jeremy Caplan on Verterra Dinnerware in the October 13, 2008 edition (Australian) of Time (page 52). Also at: http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1706699_1707550_1846340,00.html
    Jeremy Caplan’s article is careful not to over-state or claim. However, it strongly implies that Michael Dwork had an “idea” in southern India in 2006, that Mr Dwork developed his idea with “engineer friends”, “crossed Asia to find plants for his plates”, “through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia”, “testing dozens”, “in search of the perfect leaf” and so on. Before settling on a palm leaf in southern India – wow.
    I think it should be known that plates and bowls steam-pressed from the leaf-base (sheath) of the Areca (the so called ‚Äòbetel nut’) palm (Areca catechu) have been manufactured in southern India since long before 2006.
    Indeed, in 2006, steam-pressed Areca palm plates and bowls were already in Indian city stores and on display at trade expos in southern India, and have been imported into Australia with the name of Eco-Vision Bioplate since 2005 or earlier. Areca plates have also been imported into Germany, Switzerland and United Kingdom since or before 2003.
    Jeremy Caplan’s article includes a photo of Mr Dwork leaning on a small palm tree. I can say, with reasonable certainty, that this small palm is of the species Areca catechu, the common, plantation, Areca palm.
    It seems Mr Dwork copied a well established product (material and method) and imported Areca plates into the US market – which is hardly an “entrepreneurial gamble” and is definitely not an original idea.
    Mr Dwork was a member of the ‚Äòentrepreneurship class’ at Columbia School of Business. Mr Dwork went on, with ‚Äòhis idea’, to become the 2007 winner of the A. Lorne Weil Outrageous Business Plan Competition, and received $100,000 in seed funding from the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund – which is remarkable considering the Lang Fund’s emphasis for originality.
    What is outrageous is Michael Dwork appearing to grab the credit and failing to acknowledge Indian ingenuity, Indian producers and Indian exporters who have manufactured quality steam-pressed Areca plates identical to the Verterra product, and who have done so for years before Michael Dwork arrived in 2006.
    For a history of the Areca plate visit:
    http://www.ecovision.com.au
    http://www.eco-vision.in/companyprofile.htm
    This limited critique has been sent to the following:
    Michael Dwork. michael@verterra.com
    Jeremy Caplan via Time.
    Time magazine.
    Columbia School of Business.
    United States Patent and Trademark Office.
    The New York Times.
    New York Post.
    And others.
    Richard.

  • Richard

    Critique of Michael Dwork and Verterra – continuation.
    The overdeveloped salesmanship practiced by Michael Dwork and Verterra includes the assertion that shipping palm leaf sheaths from India to New York is okay because rural people would otherwise only burn the sheaths. This claim by Verterra is deceptive.
    Although palm leaves may sometimes be burnt for mosquito control, it is arrogant for Mr Dwork to infer that Indian farmers are not aware of the benefits of putting organic material into the soil (composting/mulch).
    Also, in rural India cooking is usually over a fire, and dried palm sheaths are an excellent fuel for the domestic fireplace. Removing Areca palm sheaths from rural areas may have unforeseen impacts, as other sources of cooking fuel need to be collected from the forest or fields.
    Verterra are proud to own extensive production facilities in India, which is, no doubt, the optimum for New York based Verterra’s balance sheet.
    Although Verterra’s facilities provide employment, its wider value for rural development is questionable, and may even be detrimental for rural self-esteem, as the villager labours for the foreign company that stole ‚Äòtheir’ product.
    Other producers of Areca plates include village cooperatives, the greater benefit for rural development would be obvious.
    If your concern is to support rural development in India, please consider Areca products from village manufacture.
    I like to have Areca palm containers for display in the home. However, from the environmental perspective, the promotion of any single use dishware is not appropriate – unless intended for areas with serious water shortages.
    In Australia, artists make delightful baskets and sculptures from the leaf sheaths of the Bangalow palm Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, which is also an Arecaceae Palmae.
    Richard – Murwillumbah, Australia.
    Yes, I am a frequent visitor to India, and I do not have any financial interest in any business associated with Areca products.
    14th November 2008.

  • John

    Can anyone comment on taking regular leaves from the east coast; oak, sycamore, maple, etc. and using them to make paper products, rather than cutting down trees? I am looking for a company that can take regular leaves and water and produce cheap paper products.

  • Richard

    I have been contacted by Mr Michael Dwork. He disputes my critiques, I believe my comments to be valid, readers may choose to disregard my previous posts, and should make their own inquires.
    Richard – Murwillumbah, Australia.

  • http://www.bioplates.com Madhu

    Dear sir,
    We glad to introduce ourselves as manufactures of disposable, bio-degradable eco-friendly areca plates and bowls from areca sheath which is the pliable but study part that holds the leaf. The sheath has a naturally yellow colour with beautiful grain as you see in teak wood. The plates and bowls made from the sheath are light and easy to store. They are economical and eco friendly. They are available in plenty in the areca gardens in South India . They are also organic material which can used without fear of any infection, they are easily biodegradable.
    These areca plates and bowls are water and heat resistant. They can be
    used to bake food in microwave ovens. They will not give out any colour or smell, they are flexible but they are hard enough to support the food served in it. They have excellent properties which have made it popular among cater for dinner parties.
    These plates are manufactured in and out side shimoga. For further details, you may visit our web site http://www.bioplates.com we appeal to you to encourage the use of these disposable and biodegradable and eco-friendly plates and support over noble endeavor.
    With regards
    MADHU