story by Michael Shapiro
photo by Sergio Goes
After a satisfying Korean barbecue mixed plate (kal-bi and chicken, what else?), the Styrofoam clamshell that had been cradling your food goes in the trash, and you’re on your way. But that clamshell is going to stay a while—for a hundred years or more. It might end up in the nearly maxed-out Waimanalo Gulch landfill, where it will leach toxins as it degrades. Or it’ll be shipped to the Mainland—at taxpayer expense—to become someone else’s century-long problem. Or it’ll find its way to the ocean, joining the estimated 100 million tons of plastic already floating in what’s being called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Out there, just 800 miles north of the Islands, the world’s largest trash-dump sprawls over an area roughly the size of the continental US—and it’s growing.
“It’s plastic, plastic, plastic everywhere, especially with Hawai‘i’s plate lunch culture,” laments Honolulu eco-preneur Mike Elhoff, who with partner Krista Ruchaber launched their startup business, Styrophobia, largely out of frustration. “We’re doing it because it drives us nuts that no one else is,” says Ruchaber, an acupuncturist-turned-environeer.
Styrophobia imports biodegradables: cups, straws, containers and utensils made from cornstarch, and clamshells made from bagasse, a by-product of sugar cane processing. Unlike plastic, which breaks down into tiny pieces but never quite disappears, all of Styrophobia’s plant-based products actually biodegrade; toss one of their bagasse clamshells into a compost heap, and the worms will reduce it to fertilizer in a week. Their cornstarch utensils and containers are practically indistinguishable from plastic—except that after a couple of weeks, they’ll melt back into Mother Nature as if they had never existed.
Biodegradables are hardly a new idea, but Hawai‘i is lagging “way behind” the environmental curve, Ruchaber says. Even most health and natural food stores don’t carry them, primarily because they’re marginally more expensive than plastic. But since Styrophobia’s launch in January 2007, Island businesses have been getting on board; places like Diamond Head Cove in Honolulu, Food for Thought in Hale‘iwa, Morning Brew and Uahi Island Grill in Kailua now use Styrophobia products, as do some high-end clients like the Maui Prince Hotel.
Still, curing Hawai‘i’s addiction to plastic is going to require an intervention—by the consumers. The key is getting businesses to respond to what their customers want. “People have got to ask for it,” says Elhoff. HH
“It’s a small way to make a huge difference.”