Belle Glade —Sugarcane grown in western Palm Beach County now has a completely different use beyond sugar, molasses and energy production.
Plates, bowls and take-out containers made from leftover sugarcane fiber are being produced for the first time in the U.S. at Tellus Products LLC just outside Belle Glade.
The 120,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, constructed last year, was launched Tuesday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony where Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and company officials spoke.
The venture’s partners, sugar producers Florida Crystals Corp. and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, have invested $75 million and hired 50 people to operate the plant. More than 90 percent of its workforce is from the Glades region. The company expects that to grow to $100 million and 100 jobs within five years at the facility next to the cooperative’s mill.
Matt Hoffman, Tellus president, told the 300 attendees, “Take a moment to consider that our society uses 20 times more plastic than it did in the 1960s, and only 2 percent of that plastic is actually recycled. Estimates are that by 2050 that number could triple and our oceans will contain more pounds of plastic than pounds of fish.
Plastic items such as plates might only be used for five minutes, but can take a thousand years or more to decompose.
The sugarcane fiber products are also more sustainable than making paper plates from trees, as the cane grows much faster.
“We have to ask ourselves if there is a better way. We have a solution. We can take a local crop that grows over 12 feet in 12 months, produce homegrown food and renewable energy and still have enough all-natural plant fiber to make sustainable products that displace plastic and Styrofoam and allow the same, convenient, single-serving use, but will go back to the ground and compost within 90 days,” Hoffman said.
Tellus is the Latin word for earth. Hoffman said the company’s motto is: “From the plants we grow to the products we create, we consider the impact to the Planet in everything we do. Tellus..Plant..Product…Planet.”
Once harvested, the sugarcane is processed, and the water, sugar, molasses and sugarcane fiber, also called bagasse, are separated. Some of the fiber goes to create biomass power, and the rest goes to create a slurry that is dried.
Through forming molds, the dried fiber is shaped into take-out containers, plates and bowls. Food service clients will be the first customers, and in a few weeks Tellus will announce how consumers can buy its products through e-commerce. Pricing is expected to be comparable to that of good-quality paper plates.
Hoffman said 35,000 plates can be produced from each ton of bagasse.
The initiative was five years in the making. It began after Rob Sproull, vice president of marketing and product development with ASR Group, a company owned by Florida Crystals and the Cooperative, saw single-use plates made from sugarcane fiber at a trade show. He was told they were manufactured in Thailand and China.
He pitched the idea to the Cooperative’s CEO Antonio Contreras and Florida Crystals’ executive vice president and chief financial officer Luis Fernandez. Then several years of research began.
Contreras said, “When we created Tellus, we had the option to site it next to any of our sugar facilities in the USA or at one of our factories internationally. In the end, we knew there was nowhere else we would want to continue to invest than here in Florida, which has a wonderful business climate, and more specifically, in the Glades communities, which have been our home since the 1960s.”
Last year the Palm Beach County Commission approved an $850,000 property tax exemption over 10 years for Tellus, because it is in the Glades region. The county said in the economic development incentive agreement that the Glades region has poverty rates and unemployment rates that are respectively, double and quadruple the national averages.
The agreement requires the creation of 71 new jobs by March 2022.
“We are generating a tax bill of almost $850,000 each year. We are creating an economic impact of well over $100 million,” Hoffman said.
Jobs at the plant range from engineers to mechanics, quality control technicians and equipment operators. The starting wage is $15.84 an hour, with benefits.
Gov. Scott, who first ran eight years ago on a jobs creation platform, said he especially likes events such as Tuesday’s in areas where it has been more difficult to grow jobs.
“Call all of your friends and tell them they need to start buying Tellus products as of today,” Scott said.
Putnam lauded the operation as evidence of technology and vertical integration in agriculture, and said, “It’s a Florida-grown crop, with Florida-grown technology and it’s making Florida-grown jobs.”
“This is real jobs supporting real families,” Putnam said. “Our kids don’t necessarily have to leave to find a good job.”
Florida Crystals’ Fernandez said that sugarcane is one of the most efficient plants at converting sunlight to food and energy.
The plant runs on sugarcane-based power provided by the mill next door. Tellus’ office building is powered by a 126-panel solar array.
“Sugarcane could be called a revolutionary crop if it hadn’t been cultivated for thousands of years. With the launch of Tellus, we couldn’t be more enthusiastic about creating yet another sustainable, high-value product from our sugarcane,” Fernandez said.