Evanesce, a Vancouver-based technology firm, is on a quest to replace plastic utensils, straws and trays with plant-based materials that are cost-effective, compostable and reduce exposure to toxic "forever chemicals."
Founded by CEO Douglas Horne, Evanesce was “created to address the concerns of the massive problem we have with plastic waste.” Though Horne does not discount climate change as a problem, he said the conversation around the environment tends to bypass the specific risks to human health from plastic waste.
“We get all tied up in CO2 (carbon dioxide) and we forget about microplastics and clean drinking water and many issues that really affect the lives of so many people around the world. I felt that it was important to move forward and do something about the issues that face us.”
Horne has a background in government and starting companies like a design firm that led the master planning of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He was elected a Member of Legislative Assembly in British Columbia and held roles such as Deputy Speaker, Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier and Co-Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Council of State Governments West.
He returned to the business world full-time in 2015 to start Evanesce in 2016. Merging his passions in business and the environment, Horne said Evanesce is a company that tries to make true circularity with products that start as plant matter and end as plant matter.
“As I like to call it dirt to dirt,” he quipped.
Biodegradable straws, trays, cutlery and cups
Evanesce manufactures biodegradable food containers, straws and utensils made out of plant material. The manufacturing process is like traditional plastic, Horne explained, using an extrusion process and injection molding. But it outputs a drastically different material.
The company’s products do not rely on petroleum, emphasize a circular economy by eliminating plastic from the recycling stream and will decompose in weeks rather than centuries. This contrasts with single-use plastic sourced from oil that is seldom recycled and pollutes the environment for hundreds of years.
For serviceware like straws, cutlery and cups, Evanesce uses biopolymers sourced from cornstarch that Horne said looks and feels like plastic.
Evanesce is on track to make 400 to 500 million straws by the end of the year, he said, and plans to produce around one billion by 2023.
Evanesce will launch trays comprised of moulded starch made up of “all organic, all completely natural, upscale agriculture waste” including corn husks and wheat husks in 2023. It can compete with products such as Styrofoam, Horne claimed, while being “backyard compostable” within 90 days or less.
He emphasized the economic competitiveness of the products, saying each biodegradable straw costs less than a cent on a wholesale basis – about half the price of a paper straw.
As the moulded starch is derived from technology that uses starch and fibre, it is still rigid and more affordable than most purely fibre-based products, Horne said.
Manufacturing and sales in the U.S.
Evanesce manufactures its products in a South Carolina facility that employs around 100 people.
It will soon begin manufacturing and distribution operations in Las Vegas for the U.S. West Coast. The Las Vegas facility is an approximately 100,000-square-foot building that will produce cutlery, cups and about 400 million straws a year across two manufacturing lines, with expectations to triple that to six lines.
There are also plans to establish a third facility in the central U.S.
Benefitting health and the environment
A key concern Horne hopes to address with Evanesce is the proliferation of plastic waste that influences human health. He pointed to problems emerging from microplastics and perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals frequently found in consumer products.
“We have this absolute fascination with greenhouse gases, but as we basically kill our planet with pollution and microplastics and destroying our groundwater, I think it’s a sad thing where we measure how well we’re doing by how much greenhouse gases we’re putting into the environment,” Horne said.
“I think it’s an issue and it’s one of the things that we have to tackle, but quite frankly, in grand scheme of things, it’s probably close to the bottom and not close to the top. Quite frankly, we need to focus more on some of the things that really do impact us and people on a long-term basis.”
PFAS are called ‘forever chemicals’ because they linger in the environment. They're linked to health problems from increased risk of cancers, raising cholesterol levels, to liver and immune system damage, and high blood pressure in pregnant women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Microplastics, which are miniscule plastic fragments found in air, water and soil, have been found in increasing numbers in humans. Though there is no firm consensus, some scientists have raised the alarm about microplastics increasing the risk of cancer, diabetes and asthma.
Educating the Canadian market
Evanesce does not sell its products in Canada (though it intends to eventually), as the U.S. market is significantly larger and more receptive. This bit of irony was explained by Horne, who said Evanesce sees “Canada as one of the markets we need to educate more.”
The single-use plastics ban enforced this year also accounted for all plant-based polymers, which Horne said is “incredibly short-sighted,” demonstrating the Canadian government “(doesn’t) get it.”
He said Europe is “way, way” ahead of North America and Asia on adopting plant-based polymers, and he hopes the Canadian government will learn to accept it.
Evanesce is continuing to grow its market and develop its technology to be on the leading edge of innovation, Horne said.
A large Asian electronics firm said to be a “household name” – which Horne would not identify – chose Evanesce as a company to explore new environmental technologies in packaging and food service, which he said is proof it is leading in the field.