From clothes pegs to bio-plastic cutlery. A long path? We talk with Antonio Munarini, the father of Ecozema brand
Besides the medals won by Italian athletes, Made-in-Italy products gained another primacy at London Olympic Games. A small company near Vicenza, Fabbrica PinzeSchio, awarded the supply of cutlery in biodegradable and compostable plastics, used by athletes, technicians, and managers – over 17 thousand people – in the Olympic Village during the games. Over 15 million pieces accounting for 350 thousand euro value – Ecozema cutlery are made of Mater-B. “The raw material – i.e. vegetable starches contained in corn, sunflowers, and other agricultural products – says Antonio Munarini, R&D Manager and company founder’s grandson, to Plastix World – comes from the fields in the Umbria region and is processed in Novamont plant in Terni. Then, it arrives in our system for processing”.
What has favored the “biological” turning point in company strategies?
It is a long path, whose origin is linked to the invasion of low-cost products, which in our sector began at least thirty years ago. At that time, our competitors began to import clothes pegs and other household care products from China. We answered with the service, by focusing on both customized production, functional to private labels in great distribution, and on a more competitive offer. In this sense, the opening of the Chinese market turned into an opportunity for us: we identified interesting and economically profitable products, and included them in our catalog. Currently, we directly manufacture only higher added-value products and manage other critical products in cooperation with other local O.E.M.s. And we buy the rest.
But let’s go back to China. You said it proved to be an opportunity…
It seems incredible, but one of our “green” products is of Chinese origin. They are disposable plates made of cellulose pulp, a low-cost raw material which is plentiful in Asia. Together with cutlery and glasses, plates are part of entirely “biological” tableware, i.e. compostable according to UNI EN 13432.
The main advantage in using compostable cutlery is linked to their correct disposal
Where did the idea of using bio-polymers come from?
From Armido Marana, our CEO, who, after his great experience in the bio-plas¬tics sector, has taught us to consider them as an alternative to traditional materials. And, after a careful market analysis, we identified a missing product: compostable cutlery. Our good relationship with Novamont facilitated shared research which, from the idea of the product, led to the development of a type of MaterBi suitable to injection molding. The first Ecozema-branded biological cutlery was created in 2005, when the first biological plastic manufactured goods started to be available on European markets. Unlike such cutlery, ours was already compostable. The egg of Columbus? I do not know, this surely allowed us to carve out a well-defined niche in a growing market.
Was it easy to metabolize the new work processes?
The Ecozema project deeply influenced the organization of our small business. When you receive big orders, you need to skillfully manage production and stock. In the relationship with our customers, who often ask for information and updates about norms apart from contract agreements, we are all at the front line. Moreover, we believe in the value of partnerships. We have built partnerships at different levels: at industrial level for production, at commercial level for the supply of accessories or items that are complementary to our products; or focused on communication and marketing initiatives.
Environmental sustainability of bio-plastics is rather debated nowadays…
Unlike traditional plastics, which have been on the market for many years now, there are not enough data to perform a reliable LCA study. In particular, there is still very few information about the end-of-life of manufactured goods made of compostable plastics. Without such information, LCAs may lead to a negative assessment for bio-polymers.
Which drive factors lead to the choice of compostable cutlery?
This product is not for niche customers, who would choose it only for ethical reasons. And this is why, as I explained, the main advantage in using such products is linked to their correct disposal, which can be possible only if your Municipality organizes separate collection of waste bound to composting. And, let us keep in mind that, in some big Italian towns, such as Milan, this is not yet happening…
On the contrary, the potential of such materials is fully appreciated on the occasion of events involving a great number of people: trade fairs, sport events… In such cases, it is possible to throw in the same container both cutlery and leftovers, and avoid separation costs. Do not forget that the costs of separate collection for organic fraction are lower (the value is variable and depends on the geographic area, editor’s note) than that of undifferentiated collection, with patent economic advantages for organizers.
It does not make much sense to talk about ethics on the consumer market…
Right. In Italy, the price of compostable cutlery is definitively high. In other countries – the U.S., for instance, which absorb the majority of Chinese products – the situation is different. Consumers are very sensible to “green” topics; they dispose of such products at low prices, and buy them without thinking about their disposal. The price is lower since the product quality is lower: it is not compostable. It seems incredible, but on this line, Italy is a pioneer!