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IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN, especially in a world where convenience is king. But manufacturers of paper goods and disposables are helping the cause, creating products that bridge the gap with a new generation of throwaway plates, napkins, cups and utensils that are easier on the earth than their predecessors. Many paper-based items are now made from recycled materials. Others are 100% biodegradable

IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN, especially in a world where convenience is king. But manufacturers of paper goods and disposables are helping the cause, creating products that bridge the gap with a new generation of throwaway plates, napkins, cups and utensils that are easier on the earth than their predecessors.

Many paper-based items are now made from recycled materials. Others are 100% biodegradable or compostable, enabling shoppers to avoid stuffing their garbage cans in lieu of improving their garden beds. Some are even made from renewable resources like bamboo.

Select retailers have been carrying them in their stores for a while now.

“As our customers begin to see environmentally friendly products down more and more aisles, having things like green paper products lets them know that we care about the environment in which they live and about the wellness of our consumers,” said Mike Hoffman, category merchandiser at Bi-Lo, Mauldin, S.C. “You can't do that with one aisle and one product.”

Bi-Lo currently carries a wide range of better-for-the-earth items. Among them are Renew Dinnerware forks, spoons and knives, which have “holes” in their handles, resulting in 10% less plastic per piece. The product's maker, Jarden Home Brands, claims that its cutlery is made of 100% recycled plastic from either post-industrial or post-consumer waste.

“The only disadvantage is that this cutlery still ends up in a landfill,” noted Hoffman. “I also looked at another set of products made with Cereplast resins, which replace a significant percentage of petroleum-based additives with starches made from corn, wheat, tapioca and potatoes.”

The Cereplast products are biodegradable when composted — which would be great, he said, if consumers composted. Unfortunately, most don't. Hoffman's ultimate decision to forgo the utensils was made after one of the sample spoons melted in his hand as he stirred a cup of coffee.

Several items managed to pass his inspection. Marcal Paper Products' Sunrise napkins made from 100% recycled materials are presently on shelves at Bi-Lo stores. The chain's Super Bi-Lo stores now boast 4-foot sections in the cleaning aisles dedicated to Earth Friendly-brand products, including paper towels, bath tissue, and laundry and cleaning items.

A few weeks ago, the chain's category managers met with representatives from Green Forest. They are currently considering shelving the company's paper towels, napkins, facial tissue and bath tissue.

“We also carry a wide variety of Chinet products,” said Hoffman. “Although they aren't specifically marked as ‘green,’ all Chinet Classic White and Casuals tableware products use 100% pre-consumer recycled milk carton stock, have 100% recovered fiber content and are biodegradable in home composting.”

One brand of cutlery in particular has caught the eye of Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting, Westport, Conn. He likes Jarden Home Brands' premium line of plastic silverware, which can be washed and reused.

“The company's Diamond brand is well known among consumers, and as it is expanded to include more recycled options, I expect those to fare well, too,” he said.

Environmental factors have moved to the forefront of manufacturers' minds and will continue to be the core of their focus for a long time, he added.

Don Stuart, managing director at Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn., concurred. This area, he said, has just started to grow.

“We have finite resources, increasing global demand, and pressures on raw materials from petroleum to corn,” said Stuart. “Because of this, the inevitable result will be a greater focus on sustainability vs. convenience.”

This tilt toward sustainability should allow such products to thrive. Even higher price points shouldn't deter shoppers, as most items are only slightly more expensive than traditional paper goods, he added.

Stuart cited Seventh Generation as one line of paper products making inroads with consumers. The long-established company makes 100% recycled paper towels, along with toilet tissue, facial tissue and an array of natural household cleaning solutions and baby and women's products.

Some smaller chains, though they see the benefit, aren't ready to commit quite yet.

“Environmental issues seem to be having a big impact in the past few years,” said Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager for Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn.

Highland Park carries all sorts of eco-conscious items in its stores. Cleaning products are among them. So are reusable bags that replace plastic or paper at the checkout. But the retailer hasn't ventured into disposables yet.

“This might be one of the last areas we and other smaller retailers focus on when it comes to being green,” Cummiskey said. “It's such a fuzzy area. I imagine that many people who are concerned about their impact on the environment will choose to use glass cups and other dinnerware they already have instead of something that is used once and then thrown away.”

Cummiskey hasn't ruled out the new one-use products altogether, though. The local market just isn't ripe enough for them at this time, he believes.

Like Highland Park, Orchard Markets, Spring Lake, Mich., is slowly increasing its inventory of green goods. Its two stores recently started carrying Green Forest paper towels and toilet paper, according to Tim McGovern, grocery manager there.

Earth-friendly paper plates, napkins and utensils, however, are on the wait-and-see list.

“We used to have Green Forest products when Spartan was our supplier, but our new warehouse just started offering these to us,” said McGovern. “The movement is gaining momentum, but we don't have anyone beating down our doors for paper products as of yet.”

While there are many green brands already on the market, more are being developed every day. Nature's Own, Natural Value, Nat-UR and Greenware are breaking through.

Bi-Lo is presently investigating another brand of disposable plates called “EarthShell,” made by Renewable Products. The dinnerware is made from a combination of vegetable starches and limestone, said Hoffman.

“I've also heard about a new disposable cup that is made from bamboo, but it is not currently available in our market,” he added. “This would be promising, since bamboo is a renewable resource that grows at a much faster rate than trees traditionally used to make paper products.”

Other concepts capturing Bi-Lo's attention include disposable dinnerware, made with a sugarcane fiber, called Bagasseware, and throwaways made from potato skins. These, said Hoffman, make good use of agricultural waste that would otherwise be discarded.

Consumer exposure to such products will be increasingly significant in upcoming years, said Cannondale's Stuart. He prods retailers to step up their promotional and merchandising efforts to drive consumer consideration of the benefits in this new segment.

“In-store communications/marketing is already playing a key role,” he said. “Whether it is in-store media, signage or radio, these messages can affect key decisions at point-of-purchase.”

Bi-Lo regularly promotes Chinet in its circulars, said Hoffman. The chain was also contemplating the addition of a special marketing program centering on Earth Day.

Incorporating paper goods into an overall strategy focused on environmental friendliness is also important, said Taft of Meridian Consulting. He suggests tie-ins with products across categories. A chain's own green practices — waste reduction, energy conservation, sustainability efforts — should be communicated as well.

“This strategy makes the focus broader than any one product, and also shifts the emphasis beyond just price,” he said.

Good Advice

  • Go slow. Test high-volume items, such as paper towels, first.
  • Some products can be recycled; others are made from recycled materials. Know the differences.
  • Tie in the retailer's own sustainability initiatives to green product promotions.
  • Confirm a product's claims by learning about the manufacturing process.