As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted the danger of eating indoors during the early stages of the pandemic, consumers turned to takeout options and many restaurants switched to using disposable tableware per the health agency’s recommendations. But changes made to protect clientele came at a cost: More disposable items mean more petroleum-based products, like traditional plastic and styrofoam, which create more environmental damage. Milford-based company Responsible Products wants to address this issue head on.
The company manufactures disposable items from plant-based materials, working to create a more sustainable packaging industry. Responsible Products selects plants that are annually or biannually renewable, meaning they are regrown once or twice a year. And under the right conditions, their plant-based products can also degrade more quickly than traditional plastics.
Founded three years ago, the company gained traction in May 2020 when they launched more than 100 products, including food bags, waste bags, paper bags, plates, bowls, takeout containers, drinkware, and utensils. The company sells directly to consumers on their website and in bulk to businesses. “We’re really trying to be a solution to everybody,” says Nate Sedgwick, Responsible Products’ founder and CEO.
The company currently services about 10 restaurants in the Cincinnati area, including Streetside Brewery. Streetside founder Kathie Hickey previously purchased compostable beer cups from Amazon Prime, but she switched to Responsible Products because they could deliver directly to the brewery in less time and at a cheaper price. “There’s no reason not to go local and go environmentally friendly, if it’s that easy,” Hickey says.
With the exception of a few products—like takeout lids made from recycled plastics—almost all of the company’s packaging is manufactured from plant materials, like sugarcane, corn, and cellulose. These plant-based products are also certified compostable, meaning they break down in a short period of time without leaving harmful trace residue. Petroleum-based plastic can take tens to hundreds of years to break down, according to the EPA.
While the infrastructure to compost these items at a large-scale is limited in Cincinnati—most items require specific conditions, like extreme heat, only available at industrial composting facilities—some of Responsible Products’ packaging, like the sandwich bags, can be composted at home.
Sedgwick hopes that as consumers use these compostable products, companies will recognize the need for industrial composting facilities, build out the infrastructure, and composting will become more readily accessible. “The way that we are looking at is use renewable raw materials, compost when you can, but, if you can’t, it’s still making a positive impact as we try to move the entire society into that way,” he says.
In the long run, Responsible Products wants to both sell and compost their disposable products. The company hopes to set up a waste collection service for their restaurant clients and deliver the used products to the appropriate composting facility; the ultimate goal is to run their own facility. For their consumers, Responsible Products plans to launch a return program. This would allow consumers to mail the flat, compostable products back to the company, which would compost them.
“I think you have to really dream big or plan big in order to tackle these monumental challenges,” Sedgwick adds. “We want to be responsible stewards of our community, of our country, of our society. We want to lessen our own impact. And it’s all about taking responsibility for what I can control.”