San Diego It wasn’t until March of this year, after introducing his creation at the Natural Products Expo West, a natural, organic and healthy goods event in Anaheim, that Zhicong “Zack” Kong, CEO and founder of TwentyFifty Fork, a compostable cutlery company, decided to speed up plans to begin mass manufacturing his natural grain-based fork.
“That is where we saw all this interest — people were saying it was the most important product at the show,” says Albert Liu, Kong’s mentor, who is helping Kong bring the cutlery, which composts in 14 days, to the market. “All the major food brands were there,” which is what compelled the pair to speed up production.
Now, Kong, a 2017 bioengineering alumnus from UC San Diego, and Liu, also a UCSD alumnus, have fast-tracked the company’s manufacturing initiatives, with plans of launching a Kickstarter campaign at the end of July with a goal of raising $30,000, followed by the opening in August of a manufacturing plant in Oceanside, where the company is headquartered.
“We will invest that money in the production line machine and the new warehouse,” said 26-year-old Kong, who raised money from friends and family to get things started and hopes to get investors to donate once manufacturing kicks off.
“The plan is to produce 180,000 (utensils) a day to start, and then, by the end of next year, 300,000 units per day, for a total of close to 10 million a month,” Liu said.
Although TwentyFifty isn’t officially selling products yet, it has orders from “health food stores, natural grocers, food service establishments, a list of universities, and larger establishments like major national grocers,” said Liu, naming UCSD and Whole Foods as two of the entities that TwentyFifty Fork is working with.
Kong submitted a patent last year for 30 formulations of the high-strength, heat-resistant (up to 170 F) utensils, including gluten-free versions. The product has a six-month shelf life while in the package and can be broken into pieces, put in dirt and watered in order to compost. The instructions on how to dispose of the utensils will be posted on the company’s website and possibly on the individual packaging.
The idea for the compostable utensils originally came from a Japanese designer in 2008, who made items like bowls and chopsticks from flour, Kong said. “Then a group from India raised quite a bit of money, maybe $300,000, for their version of edible cutlery, but, they couldn’t deliver,” added Liu, “because they were making all the products by hand and didn’t have a manufacturing system in place.”
What’s different between those other adaptations and Kong’s product is not only the 200 unique formulas that he came up with based on a variety of grains that grow in various regions (i.e. wheat, corn and soy in the United States, tapioca and soy in Southeast Asia), but also the format that Kong created in order to mass produce his product. He hopes to eventually have manufacturing plants all over the world to continue to create the compostable cutlery using a crop that is easily accessible in each country for a low energy carbon footprint.
“Zack, as a bio engineer, developed the mold that has an air-flow technology that allows us to manufacture a lot of these in a small space as opposed to a horizontal production line and also gives the utensil its strength,” said Liu, who graduated with his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1996. “Because, if you can’t mass manufacture these, it just doesn’t make much sense.” Part of the reason for that is the cost of making the utensils, which will be about $0.50 a fork at first, with prices expected to drop down as orders increase.
Kong’s creation is one of many recent efforts in an eco-friendly direction for the food service industry. In November 2016, California banned single-use plastic bags via Proposition 67, becoming the first state in the nation to do so. As a result, during the 2017 California Coastal Cleanup Day plastic bags accounted for 3.1 percent of the litter collected from the state’s beaches, down from 7.4 percent in 2010.
This is part of the inspiration behind the name TwentyFifty Fork, said Liu. “2050 is the year a lot of things are happening, according to experts, like, the amount of plastic in oceans will exceed the amount of fish in the ocean. What we are aiming for is to help avoid some of those consequences.”
Awareness in Hospitality Sector
Just last month, Seattle announced its restaurants would stop offering plastic straws and utensils starting July 1, becoming the first large city to ban the products, according to Fortune.com. Instead, eateries will have to give customers compostable alternatives or patrons will have to bring their own cutlery. The California Coastal Commission reports, from 1989 to 2014, the California Coastal Cleanup Day picked up over 700,000 straws and stirrers from beaches, or about four percent of the total items retrieved. According to a report earlier this year by CNBC, California is also looking to ban removable plastic caps and impose restrictions on plastic straws by requiring customers be given them only if requested.
Las Vegas-based hospitality company Hakkasan Group, which owns San Diego restaurants like Searsucker San Diego, Searsucker Del Mar and Herringbone La Jolla, made an eco-friendly commitment last year, taking the “No-Straw” pledge and becoming certified as Ocean-Friendly Restaurants (OFR) through the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization headquartered in San Clemente. In addition, Hakkasan Group stopped the use of Styrofoam and plastic bags, only giving diners reusable utensils and to-go diners compostable and recyclable containers. Takeout utensils are only available upon request. Miramar’s Cutwater Spirits’ distillery and restaurant posts signs all around its main bar that read: “Straws Available Upon Request.”
“Every day Americans throw away an estimated 500 million plastic straws — when you hear that number, it seems hard to imagine,”said Rachael Giannecchini, director of restaurant marketing for the Hakkasan Group. “Most of these straws are used in the foodservice industry but end up in our oceans, becoming one of the top pollutants and marine debris worldwide.”
Most of these developments have come since China stopped accepting plastic waste from the United States earlier this year as a result of the country’s own waste and environmental problems, forcing the U.S. to look for other waste management options.
Growing up in the city of Foshan, a major manufacturing center in China, was a huge motivating factor for Kong to find a way to help reduce pollution and waste. He is currently working with a national ice cream and yogurt chain to help it replace its plastic and/or wood scoopers with TwentyFifty Fork grain-based ones. A compostable knife will be released in coming weeks.
And, Kong has a whole system of eco-friendly innovations in mind which includes alternative protein cultivation methods and edible products that all fall under an eco-friendly approach.
Said Liu: “It all fits into a cycle of management of waste and the idea of use and reuse that is sustainable and in line with our global needs for the future.”