A Corvallis-based, award-winning startup called EcNow Tech provides compostable cutlery to the Oregon State University dining center and several local restaurants. The cutlery breaks down like green waste and therefore avoids the landfill. The company invited chemical engineering majors Chad Thomsen, Meaghan Jones, and Sean Crawford to investigate which locally sourced materials might serve as superior filler to augment the base from which their cutlery is currently derived.
“It’s really cool from the sustainability standpoint,” said Thomsen, “they’re looking to incorporate locally sourced products and benefiting local businesses.”
The cutlery currently is composed of a corn sugar-based polymer called polylactic acid. Goals of the project included sourcing local agricultural byproducts to reduce cost; achieving improved heat deflection, flexibility, and impact resistance; and reducing composting time to a few weeks. The team tested rice hulls, berry pomace, bamboo poles, wood flour, and flax shive fiber, all of which are currently considered waste products or otherwise easily grown locally at a minimal expense. They used an industrial extruder available on campus to mix the homogenous base polymer with a 10 to 20 percent ratio of filler. As the material was extruded, a metal dye formed three strands, which are ground at EcNow and put through an injection molder to create the compostable cutlery.
“It has been outstanding to work on an industrial scale extruder, and the industry interaction is invaluable to students as we look forward to our careers,” said Thomsen. “I have really benefited from the resources available to engineers at OSU and the opportunity gain hands on experience.”