When you think about environmentally friendly cups, plates, and utensils, a single color probably comes to mind: brown.
"That's just not appealing," says Lauren Gropper, co-founder and CEO of Repurpose, a Los Angeles-based maker of compostable tableware and other goods. "You've got to stand out. It's gotta pop!"
In place of all that bland brownness, Repurpose relies on whimsical packaging with slogans like "More Party, Less Landfill" and a website and Instagram feed rich in color. "We're really trying to identify with fun and not taking ourselves so seriously," says Gropper, whose line of cups, plates, bowls, silverware, straws, and garbage bags is now carried in 17,000 stores nationwide, including Wegmans, CVS, and Ralphs.
That message has been well-received among consumers. With just 20 employees, the 10-year-old Repurpose has been listed twice on the Inc. 5000, a tally of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. Gropper's company, which booked north of $6 million in 2018 revenue, this year notched No. 127 on the Inc. 5000 Series: California, Inc.'s list of the fastest-growing companies in the state. Repurpose is also the 13th-fastest-growing woman-led company in the state.
Repurpose grew out of Gropper's work as a green consultant on film and TV sets, including HBO's Hollywood fantasy series, Entourage. There was always a lot of talk about lowering a production's carbon footprint, but also a lot of single-use plastics at the craft services table. "It just doesn't feel right," Gropper recalls thinking. She knew there had to be a more eco-friendly way to serve food and beverages to cast and crew--and she knew if she succeeded, it'd be a boon well beyond the movie business.
Indeed, the market for biodegradable cutlery was valued at $33.9 million worldwide in 2018 and is expected to grow to $50.7 million by 2025, according to a 2019 study from Grand View Research.
While demand for eco-friendly tableware is growing, it remains a cost-intensive product category. Repurpose's cups, which are crafted from renewable sources like refuse corn and sugar cane, cost about 12 cents per cup to make, compared to 4 or 6 cents for conventional cups.
Plus, there were inconsistencies with the materials that needed to be addressed along the way. Repurpose's first coffee cup, made from foamed-out plant matter, looked right and felt like velvet to the touch, but the lids didn't fit, and they leaked.
Gropper and her co-founder, Corey Scholibo, a journalist-turned-brand consultant, had to completely redesign the cups, which now include an internal sleeve for heat protection. Perfecting the lids continues to be an issue, Gropper admits, since compostable tops react differently to heat than traditional plastic ones.
The competition in the industry is also a key challenge. While Repurpose might have started out as a way to greenify Hollywood, once it took on $1.3 million in outside capital in 2011, the company
trained its sights on the consumer market. Repurpose now aims to get everyday users to change their tableware habits, putting it up against larger competitors like Seventh Generation, which was acquired by Unilever in 2016, and Eco-Products, which has been in the green disposable space since 1990 and is now a part of Novolex Holdings, makers of a wide range of disposables.
The trend lines favor Repurpose's mission, suggests Joel Makower, chairman and editor of GreenBiz Group, an Oakland-based sustainability-focused media and events company. The movement around alternatives to disposables has gone "from zero to 60" in the past few years, he says, adding, "Green succeeds in the consumer marketplace where green equals better, higher-quality, longer-lasting, recyclable."
While Gropper says she has the recycling part down, making Repurpose carbon-neutral by the end of this year is her next big project. The company manufactures its products in Taiwan, though its shipping provider offers carbon offsets at a rate of $7 per carbon ton.
It's even trying to go further away from its all-brown forebears. Repurpose's off-white compostable tableware collection will get a shock of color when it releases its upcoming line of pastels, planned for later this year. "We do the best that we can, and we're not perfect," says Gropper. "But certainly we have lofty goals."