By Hannah Buoye

Perhaps you’ve noticed those funny– “are they plastic?”–spoons at the Cowell Café, or the take-out container from Café Brasil that your Acai Bowl now comes in. These strangely familiar containers and disposable cutlery are actually biodegradable and functional alternatives to plastic spoons, and styrofoam containers.

“The cutlery is made from corn and potato starch and is good for up to 220 degrees,” explained Reed Duffus, general manager and purchasing agent for Coast Paper and Supply. “The biodegradable hot cup, dinnerware and take-out containers are made of sugarcane fiber.”

Unlike the non-recyclable styrofoam and non-biodegradable plastic, cornstarch and sugarcane are desirable materials from an environmental perspective since they are both a renewable resource and a biodegradable product.

Correcting his explanation, Duffus mentioned that these products are actually considered “bio-compostable” since they “biodegrade within 90 days in a landfill or compost pile.”

Coast Paper and Supply, a locally owned and operated business, supplies the biodegradable cutlery and containers. The majority of their business is with local restaurants and coffee houses. Duffus hopes that by supplying these bio-compostable alternatives he can convince businesses to switch from plastic and foam to cornstarch and sugarcane.

College Eight has placed an order with the company for this Saturday’s Earth Day celebration.

“We are always trying to get College Eight to be more sustainable,” said Lauren Fieberg, an intern for College Eight. “We wanted to keep waste minimal for the event and thought that was a good way to do it.”

In Santa Cruz, food packaging and its associated litter have been targeted by Public Works Department outreach and education on waste reduction. With the city’s proximity to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, litter and its adverse effects are a significant environmental concern. Easily washed into waterways and ingested by wildlife, plastics, especially polystyrene (also known as styrofoam), can cause choking and clog digestive tracts.

“Styrofoam usually has a one-time use,” explains Chris Moran, waste reduction manager for the City of Santa Cruz Public Works Department. “When the container is discarded, the material persists long after its usefulness is over.”

“Polystyrene is not biodegradable,” Moran continued. “It last for hundreds, probably thousands, of years, ends up in the Pacific gyre, floating forever. Why would you have a cup of coffee that’s gone in 10 minutes in a cup that will last hundreds of years? Polystyrene just doesn’t make sense.”

For the past 17 years, Santa Cruz has had a voluntary compliance program for a ban on polystyrene. The city’s municipal code states, “It shall be a policy goal…that no retail food establishment shall package food or beverages in any food packaging which utilizes polystyrene foam.” Despite the success of outreach and education, the ordinance is still only voluntary.

Duffus cites price and lack of education as two main factors preventing a switch to biodegradable wares.

“It is an extra cost and higher price because there is no establishment in the market yet. Other customers stick with foam because of price and because that’s what they’ve always used.”

For example, a three-compartment foam container with 200 in a case costs $29.95, while a three-compartment biodegradable container with 250 in a case, slightly larger in size, costs $80.85. While the containers have about a three-dollar difference, the cutlery is analogous in price to recyclable, heavy-duty plastic.

Moran is pushing for Santa Cruz to use only biodegradable containers, attacking polystyrene first: “We want [polystyrene] to be phased out and gone, and are working on a new ordinance to make it mandatory.”

With much outreach and education, as well as consumer pressures, the city has been able to convince such businesses as New Leaf and the Buttery to change their food packaging to recyclable or biodegradable alternatives, while Café Brasil has completely switched to biodegradable containers. Moran and the city’s efforts have even convinced Cold Stone Creamery to phase out their use of styrofoam, a victory that is not limited to Santa Cruz.

“It is going to be nationwide,” Moran said with enthusiasm. “That’s almost 2,000 businesses.”