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Company cashes in on trash that doesn’t last |

Company cashes in on trash that doesn’t last

GOING GREEN—Above, U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Thousand Oaks), left, listens as Gary Chamness, owner of Camarillobased Chamness Biodegradables, speaks to her during a tour of the production facility Aug. 24. At left, Chamness holds two plates, the left one made from spent hops from local breweries and the other from coffee grounds. The plates are among the biodegradable tableware items made by the local company.

Judging by their spending habits, eco-minded Americans are in a love affair with organic foods, shelling out more than $43 billion on sustainably grown products last year.

ROB VARELA/Acorn Newspapers

Now an Iowa-based biodegradable products manufacturer that expanded a year ago due to growing demand into a 36,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Camarillo is betting that the popularity of organics spreads to tableware.

“As people change to more eco-friendly choices, we really see a very strong potential for our products in a lot of different areas,” said Dave Darnbrough, vice president of operations for Chamness Biodegradables, which makes 100-percent-compostable dinnerware.

“We think it’s just a matter of getting the word out about what we do,” he said.

Researchers at the company spent about 12 years experimenting with various food compounds before they landed on a secret patented process for turning starch and bamboo into plates, cups and other tableware that doesn’t harm the environment, Darnbrough said.

Today, the company turns out about 36 million biodegradable plates and cups a year, along with millions of custom-ordered items for specific clients.

“Almost any product a company wants, we can reverseengineer it for them,” Darnbrough said as he led a recent tour of the Camarillo plant. “If they want to replace a certain item with a compostable product, we can do that for them.”

Many firms claim their products are 100 percent compostable, but the federal Food and Drug Administration keeps a tight rein on products marketed as biodegradable, handing out fines of up to $450,000 to companies for making false and unsubstantiated claims.

Darnbrough said he’s put his firm’s products to the composting test in his backyard.

“I actually did an experiment with my daughter where I sunk four fish tanks in my backyard and filled them with soil,” Darnbrough said. “Over 30 days, our product was gone, with just small traces left. The other products were still there.”

Accounting for about $1 billion in sales in 2008, eco-friendly dinnerware is still a niche industry compared to the $47-billiona year plastic dinnerware market, according to the New York-based Biodegradable Products Institute.

But compostable tableware is making inroads, the National Restaurant Association said.

Excitement was high earlier this year at the association’s annual trade show in Washington, D.C., where restaurateurs looking at switching from plastic showed strong interest in plant-based, biodegradable options, the association reported on its website.

At Chamness, growing interest in eco-friendly tableware is translating into increasing sales, prompting the company to expand its Southern California operations last year from its 14,000-square-foot building in Carpinteria to the new plant on Mission Oaks Boulevard in Camarillo, Darnbrough said.

“We had no place to stack product; our warehouse was full” at the Carpinteria location, he said. “We needed more room.”

After scouring Southern California for suitable buildings, company owner Gary Chamness settled on the commercial building near the trucking lanes of the 101 Freeway. Inside the Camarillo factory, giant vats churn organic materials into a paste that resembles baking dough. The “dough” is then heated in molds and shaped into dinnerware.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley visited Chamness’ Camarillo factory. She was interested in one of the company’s production methods, which takes used-up beer hops and discarded coffee grounds and turns them into compostable cups and plates.

“Meeting face to face (with companies) is the most effective way for me to better understand their challenges so that I can better represent them in Congress,” the congresswoman said in an email.

In January, Chamness scored a major client when Universal Studios Florida placed an order with the company, Darnbrough said.

“They’re buying a bunch of serveware for their water park. The public loves it,” Darnbrough said. “Down the road, we think our products would be perfect for cruise ships, because the product breaks down in ocean water in 21 days. Cruise ships wouldn’t have to worry about hauling the product back. It just becomes fi sh food.” ROB VARELA/Acorn Newspapers

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