WEST PALM BEACH — Plastic plates can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills, but a Palm Beach County company says a homegrown product made of sugarcane fiber can handle grandma’s holiday baked beans and the microwave, yet turn to eco-friendly compost in 90 days once thrown away.
For the first time, the general public can put those claims to the test by shelling out, say, $7.49 for 100 6-inch plates or $24.98 for 100 10-inch plates on Amazon.com.
The first direct-to-consumer availability represents a big milestone for Tellus Products in Belle Glade, whose employment has doubled from 40 to 80 since March.
Company officials bill it as an innovative and environmentally-friendly use of materials left over from the sugar harvest, and an important new product for the largest agricultural county east of the Mississippi River.
“The market is greater than we can supply now,” said Tellus president Matthew Hoffman.
Until now, the company has concentrated on sales to distributors serving clients such as hotels, hospitals and concession areas, officials said.
Eventually, Tellus hopes to manufacture more than 3 million plates per day.
The products are made from sugarcane fiber, called bagasse, produced by its parent companies, the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida and Florida Crystals Corp. The finished plates are described as “unbleached, heavy duty, oil and grease resistant, microwave safe and can be used in the refrigerator and freezer.”
More products are planned, including an 11.5-ounce bowl and additional “clamshell” products for the food-service industry.
About 90 percent of the employees come from the Glades, with a starting wage of at least $15.50 an hour, according to company officials.
Consumers obviously have little trouble finding prices such as $5.17 for 200 plastic foam plates of just under 9 inches at Walmart, for example. The Tellus marketing appeal puts a heavy emphasis words such as “eco-friendly” and “natural.” At the same time, it has to compete against other plates advertised as coming from natural or recycled fibers.
Functionally, the challenge is to make the product sturdy enough for heavy, hot, oily or runny helpings of food, but not so tough that it won’t break down quickly in the landfill.
Company officials say they’re ready for the wider public test.
“It absolutely is a balancing act,” Hoffman said. “These plates aren’t designed to be used 10 times. But they’ll certainly hold your grandmother’s baked beans and can go in the microwave.”