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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — It's getting to be picnic season. For many of us, that means lunches in the park, Slurpees by the ocean and a lot of single-use plastic straws and cutlery that are almost never recycled. But a Huntington Beach startup is offering a solution.
It's called Restore Foodware, and it makes forks, knives, spoons and straws that feel like plastic but naturally degrade if they end up on the ground or in the ocean. On Monday, the company started selling them at Target.
"Because it's naturally occurring, microorganisms in the ocean know how to eat it and consume it like a food source," said Mark Herrema, co-founder of the company that makes Restore Foodware, Newlight Technologies.
Billed as the world's first natural and regenerative foodware, Restore is made using a natural material extracted from ocean-going microbes. It's produced locally at Newlight's Huntington Beach facility in big tanks of saltwater, where the microorganisms eat air and greenhouse gases to produce a material called AirCarbon that can be melted and shaped into the same things that are currently made from plastic.
"Our goal is to help end ocean plastic pollution by finding a shared middle ground," Herrema said. "For us, that means making sustainable products that people love and that also work for the environment."
Restore is dishwasher safe for reuse, does not get soggy with hot or cold foods and drinks, contains no plastic or glue, and does not require food crops for its production. Its straws can break down in a backyard composter in two to six months, or about a year if they wind up in the ocean, Herrema said.
The company won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2016.
Just 8.7% of plastic is recycled, according to the EPA. The rest is landfilled, incinerated or ends up in the natural environment. And the problem is only expected to get worse. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, plastic production is expected to double over the next two decades.
"Plastic waste is a global threat to our oceans, marine life, natural resources, and public health," California Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, said earlier this year during a virtual introduction of the state's 2021 Legislative Plastics and Waste Reduction Package currently before lawmakers. "It's going to take a coordinated, multi-faceted approach to begin to address this urgent financial, health, equity, and environmental challenge."
Newlight is one of many companies tackling plastic waste at its source by finding a plastic-free replacement.
In the works for 17 years, Newlight was inspired by a 2003 article Herrema read in the Los Angeles Times. Called "Getting the Cows to Cool It," the piece talked about the amount of methane generated simply from bovines passing gas, which got him thinking.
"Nature uses greenhouse gas as its starting point for so many of the processes in life," he said. "What if we could do something similar? What if we could take carbon and just view it as a resource, as a material, and use it to make products?"
If it was possible, Herrema thought, "we would have a consumer-driven pathway to reducing the amount of carbon in the air, so that's where our journey started."
It's been a long trek ever since. Herrema was an undergraduate at Princeton University when he co-founded the company with Kenton Kimmel, who was attending Northwestern. Both were originally from Orange County and moved back home after school to start a laboratory, then a pilot plant in Irvine, then another plant in Costa Mesa before setting up shop in Huntington Beach.
It took Herrema and his team about a decade to do the research to figure out how to replicate what naturally happens in the ocean "and to do it on land in a cost-effective, scalable way where we could produce products that act just as strong and durable as plastic but will go away at the end of their life and have a negative carbon footprint."
Newlight entered the market in 2020 and, last month, partnered with the hamburger chain Shake Shack to pilot Restore Foodware at two of its Southern California locations, in West Hollywood and Long Beach. Target is Newlight's first national distribution partner; it's selling 24-piece packs of wrapped straws and three-piece cutlery packs with a natural fiber carrying case.
"Our plan is over the next five to seven years to introduce over 90% of the product types that end up in the ocean," Herrema said.
That includes plastic bottles, as many as 34 billion of which end up in the ocean annually, according to a 2020 study from the nonprofit environmental group Oceana.
"This is very much the beginning."