"You want to inspire people and meet them where they're at," Ken Jacobus said one recent afternoon. The founder of Good Start Packaging was standing in the reception area of his small Mountain View office before an array of biodegradable paper plates and bioplastic cups and eating utensils, all arranged neatly on a table.
Jacobus' company buys these items in bulk and sells them to restaurants in Mountain View, such as Red Rock Coffee and the party supply chain Diddam's, and around the Bay Area. The way he sees it, it's a fairly easy — and in some cases cost-neutral — way for businesses to reduce their environmental footprint.
Good Start distributes the coffee cups in the usual sizes and aside from not being able to stand up to quite as much heat, most of his clear containers are just as strong as any conventional plastic container.
As far as cost goes, a non-compostable 10-ounce paper cup runs about $60 for 1,000 units. Buying 1,000 compostable cups from Jacobus' company costs $84. However, some recycled papers cost less than sheets produced from fresh-cut tree pulp. "Increasingly there is less and less of a reason for businesses and restaurants to go for the traditional products."
Still, while more people, including business owners, are looking for ways to go green with the goods they consume, Jacobus said demanding a paradigm shift is counter-productive. Consumers — especially those living outside of regions like the ultra eco-conscious Bay Area — aren't going to give up their to-go coffee cups and doggie bags in favor of reusable mugs and ceramic containers at the drop of a hat. With an issue as politically charged as environmentalism can get, forcing the issue is only going to produce a backlash.
The products that Jacobus peddles strike a compromise. Everything in Good Start catalog is designed for single use. However, every cup, bowl, fork, napkin and plastic bag is also compostable; if thrown in a compost bin, all of Jacobus' wares will turn into soil that can be used in a garden.
Good Start's start
Back in 2007 Jacobus was working as the vice president of sales for a software company. The job was not as fulfilling as he would have liked and he was searching for a career change. In September of that year he heard a speech given by environmental activist, author and President Obama's special advisor for green jobs, Van Jones.
In his speech, Jones noted that while environmentally friendly consumer products, such as the Toyota Prius and solar panels were great, they were cost prohibitive. Everyone should be able to afford to make green choices in the marketplace, he said.
Jones' lecture "changed my life," Jacobus said. Right then and there, he remembers, he decided to quit his job, which he did at the end of 2007. Jacobus then took a year off to figure out how he could make a living doing something positive for the environment.
"I wanted to do something that's going to leave a legacy," Jacobus said.
Through his research he decided he wanted to help tackle the environmental issues created by plastics and other forms of single-use, disposable items produced for and by the food-industry. Jacobus recalled how he was appalled to learn about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a portion of the North Pacific Ocean where currents have created a gyre of floating plastic debris that some have estimated to cover an area larger than the state of Texas. Equally disturbing was the realization that many plastic products which feature the recycling symbol aren't actually recyclable. Even when a consumer tosses a plastic bottle into a recycling bin, often that bottle isn't recycled, he said — rather it is burned as fuel or simply thrown in a landfill somewhere.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 31 million tons of plastic waste was created in 2010. About 14 million tons of that waste came in the form of containers and packaging — much of which was used in the food service industry. However, only 8 percent of the total waste generated was recycled.
If United States as a whole could reduce its plastic consumption by even 10 percent, Jacobus said, that would be a significant step in the right direction — a "good start," as he puts it.
Reducing consumption of plastic-containing food service products and replacing them with the compostable products he distributes shouldn't be too hard. It is the "low-hanging fruit" when it comes to making meaningful environmental decisions, he said.
With that in mind, Jacobus founded Good Start in 2009. For two years, Jacobus was running a one-man show out of his home — outsourcing warehousing and trucking services (Good Start delivers directly to local businesses and uses shipping companies to deliver his products across the country). In 2011 Jacobus expanded, opening a small office near the intersection of Dana Street and Pioneer Way and hiring two employees. He hopes to grow his business in the years to come by expanding to markets like Seattle and other major cities with a strong green streak and good composting infrastructure.
The reason Jacobus is seeking cities where composting services are readily available is that, according to him, most landfills aren't designed to facilitate biodegrading. In traditional landfills, biodegrading takes much longer than it would in a compost heap, according to the EPA. That's because such "dry tomb" landfills create large anaerobic pockets, devoid of moisture, which inhibits the growth of the organisms that would break down food scraps and cardboard as they do in a wet, aerated compost heap.
"If one of our cups makes it into a traditional landfill, it will take just as long to decay as a regular plastic cup," Jacobus said.
However, even if a majority of the products Good Start sells end up in such a landfill, Jacobus said, at least pollution has been reduced in the manufacturing process and dangerous toxins have been taken out of the environment.
Plastics are made from petroleum. By replacing traditional plastic products with bioplastics, which are made with the oil derived from sugarcane pulp (which would otherwise be incinerated), the products Good Start distributes conserve hydrocarbons. Turning liquid oil into a pliable solid plastic requires chemicals many scientists believe are linked to birth defects and certain cancers.