In business the general rule is cut costs and raise revenue wherever possible. A company in Homer partially ignores this tenet to provide compostable and recyclable products to environmentally conscious businesses. For Loopy Lupine and its customers, the trade off is a fair one in favor of a smaller carbon footprint.
The Two Sisters Bakery in Old Town Homer is just one of the businesses that incorporate Loopy Lupine’s line of recycled and compostable goods, and the restaurant’s customers love it.
“When I go to a coffee shop I love to see locally made and compostable stuff and if I’m not bringing my own cup I like to go to a place that does that.”
“Yes, it’s very important, because otherwise we’d be flooded with all these plastic things, which are around already unfortunately.”
“It’s fascinating. They can actually recycle corn and put it in a fork. I didn’t know you could make vegetables utensils but that’s super cool.”
The obscure little company behind those compostable utensils also provides cups made with a corn based coating; take out containers with sugar cane fibers, compostable paper towels, napkins, and even a line of janitorial supplies.
“We’ve sent coffee cups up to Nome and we have a customer up in Fairbanks and we have several customers in Anchorage,” Dale Banks, Loopy Lupine’s owner, said. “But the bulk of our sales are down here on the Peninsula.”
We met inside one of his two warehouses. The wood sided building is on the outskirts of town tucked away inside a grove of trees and partially hidden by a little spillover from a neighboring salvage yard. Leaning up against the building is a makeshift sign that spells out the company name using sections of a dark green rain gutter and an aluminum dryer vent.
It’s a quirky place with an atmosphere to match its name. A port hole in one of the walls offers a peak at its hay insulation.
“We use wood floor because we like walking on it better than concrete,” Banks said. “We also have solar heating walls on the outside so when the sun shines on the wall it pumps warm air into the building.”
Banks started the company in the late 90’s.
His signature product is the one thing Loopy Lupine makes in house, a compostable paper coffee cup.
“We start out with big cut sheets of paper,” he said. “We stack them up on here and I have magnetic printing plates that go onto this printing drum and it’s a one color printer.
Banks demonstrates how customer logos are fixed on the plain white stock paper before it is fed into ‘the machine’.
“Sort of a Rube Goldberg type machine,“ he said. “You’ve got the side of the cup getting fed into the machine and welded on the side and heated up on the bottom.”
There are a lot of steps.
Michael McGuire owner of the organic coffee shop Kbay Café has bought the cups and several other products from Banks for years. He says buying from Loopy Lupine just makes sense for his business.
“All of Loopy Lupine’s products are extremely great products and the coffee we offer is completely organic so we’re also tying into our own belief system,” McGuire said.
But there’s a downside. Going green means you have to pay the price. Banks says his products generally cost a little more for both him and his customers.
“A lot of these things are made in smaller quantities so economies of scale make the cost more.”
“It costs a little bit more up front but the whole idea about paying a little bit more up front is the cost to the next seven generations is less.”
“It’s unfortunate because a lot of the external costs built into things like their non-recyclability or their non-compostability are not accounted for. Therefore it’s not an even playing field on the manufacturing end.”
Banks argues if more companies produced products like his using recycled material the economies of scale would balance out and in some cases the green products would actually cost less to make.
“Processing a recycle material for example uses less water and energy than processing a raw material,” Banks said. “Take trees for example you have to cut a tree down and drag it out of the forest and process it. But, when you start with paper you already have some of the processes done for you.”
So if it could cost less and mean less waste produced why aren’t more companies on the same track as Loopy Lupine?
“Well that’s a very good question,” Banks said. “There’s a lot of entrenched businesses that have a vested interest in continuing with the status quo. On the consumer end people don’t really like to change that much.”
That may be true, even the customers at the Two Sisters, who say they support greener products admit the environmental factor isn’t always the priority.
“If they’ve got good food and they do that…cool. If they don’t and they’ve got good food usually the food is going to direct my participation.”
Banks doesn’t hide his frustration but he still has hopes one day, the use of recycled and compostable material in manufacturing will become the norm.