WARSAW – Using disposable tableware when organising a dinner party or when having a picnic at the park saves up time and cleaning efforts, but it does not come without a moral burden. The general public is now more aware than ever about the perilous consequences of the abundance of plastic and paper waste on earth, as scientific research institutions continue to pile on evidence on the negative externalities of these materials. Unfortunately, awareness raising has not yet translated into a significant shift in market trends, and both the widespread availability of disposable plastic and paper products in the food industry, let alone the total global annual output, and the lifestyles and behavioural patterns of consumers continue to hamper the implementation of ‘greener’ solutions. However, the good news is that, in recent years, new companies have emerged to propose a viable alternative to plastic and paper that have shown to have profitable business models and the capacity to scale up across the world. One of them is Biotrem, a Polish company that develops biodegrabable and edible wheat bran-based tableware.
Bran is the broken outer shell of grain separated from flour after milling. It is usually used as animal feed and as a source of dietary fiber in the manufacturing of foodstuff by the food industry. However, large amounts of it are wasted every year as its characteristics make it a liability for cereal producers. “Weight-wise bran is just 30% of the grain, but volume-wise it’s almost 100% of the original, unprocessed grain. It requires storage space, handling and it can’t be stored longer than 5-7 days,” stated Malgorzata Then, CEO of Biotrem, during our interview. Bearing that in mind, Mr. Jerzy Wysocki, the inventor of Biotrem’s technology, whose family’s milling traditions date back to the beginning of the 20th century, invented a technology a couple decades ago to turn wheat bran into biodegradable tableware. In 2015, driven by the increasing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging and backed by national waste-related legislation, Biotrem built a production plant in Zambrow, in northeastern Poland, and started to commercialise its products.
Their unique technology operates a fully automated manufacturing process that turns locally-sourced wheat into robust brownish pieces of tableware and cutlery in a matter of minutes. A distribution system channels the milled bran through several pipes all the way from the storage room into each one of the machines. Depending on the product and its size – they currently produce plates, in different sizes, round bowls, oval bowls and cutlery – each machine then pours an accurately metered amount of bran into each mold which, after being pressed and baked during a two minute process, delivers the product onto a conveyer belt to cool down. The whole process is very resource efficient as the only needed raw materials are wheat bran and water – in small amounts and depending on the level of moisture of the bran. Once ready, the final product is taken to the packaging department where it is prepared to be shipped off to their distributors.
Biotrem’s innovative business model incorporates the core principles of a circular economy and sustainability criteria. Regarding its circularity properties, the company’s valorisation and conversion of wheat bran surplus alligns with EU FUSIONS’ theoretical framework, that supports an agri-food system where resource flows are designed to prevent losses and waste and to recover raw materials. “So the first goal for Mr. Wysocki, because he was a miller, was to do something with wheat bran and to use it as a normal product, not as waste,” stated Malgorzata. Their efforts to minimise the value loss of wheat bran and to extend its lifecycle, which contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG) 12.3 target on food waste, are supported by the European Commission as part of the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste.
With regard to sustainability criteria, the use of wheat bran and other raw materials in packaging products constitutes an ecological alternative to materials such as styrofoam and coated paper, as they create less environmental externalities and they are more resource efficient, in comparison. Paper and plastic are overall the most widely used types of packaging materials in the world. Their vast abundance, which makes perfect business sense within a linear “take, make, dispose” model, poses serious economic and environmental challenges. Economically speaking, the disposal or the conversion – incineration, transformation to bio-energy and others – of products that could have been recovered and upcycled means the loss of significant monetary and material value. Environmentally speaking, their long decomposition time exposes nature to substances that could be potentially damaging, as plastic products may take up to a thousand years to decompose and paper products around half a year. Consequently, we are seeing more and more companies take advantage of this market niche, who are using renewable alternatives, that have a smaller ecological footprint, such as sugar cane, bamboo or palm leaves in packaging manufacturing. Contrary to their non-renewable counterparts, they use zero or close to zero chemicals in the production process, while also offering similar usage features such as stiffness and thermal insulation. Biotrem’s wheat bran-based products belong to this group, though they have a slight competitive edge when it comes to both functionality (they can be eaten) and scalability (Wheat bran is virtually available everywhere in the world and their patented technology can be replicated everywhere).
Only two years after starting to commercialise their products, Biotrem’s current production output is estimated at approximately 15 million pieces a year. The viability and the success of their business model has set an important standard for future similar companies to come. At this rate it is only a matter of time before their worldwide expansion plans come to fruition.
INTERVIEW WITH MALGORZATA THEN, CEO OF BIOTREM
What are Biotrem’s main goals?
The first goal of the inventor, Mr. Jerzy Wysocki, was to use a byproduct, which is wheat bran, from the milling process. Wheat bran is almost 30% of all grains and it is a huge problem for millers because they can be used as animal feed, as food for people, but generally it is a problem to use as a normal product. So the first goal for Mr. Jerzy Wysocki, because he was a miller, was to do something with wheat bran and to use it as a normal product, not as waste. So, that was the beginning and after that the market is changing, there is a huge demand for green packaging all over the world. Legislation helped us a lot because people in the government sees that there is a huge problema with waste. So the second goal is to make alternative for the plastic or paper disposables.
Where do you source wheat bran from?
Mr. Jerzy Wysocki is no longer a miller so we make our products using wheat bran which we buy from all around the production plant, we buy product from local millers, in Poland.
Could you describe the production process in a few words?
Our production process is controlled and certified, we have BRC Global Food Certificate. When we buy wheat bran and when it comes to our production plant it is stored in certified controlled conditions and after that, when wheat bran, little bit moisturized comes to the machine, it is strictly measured, and after that it is pressed and baked. After two minutes we have the product ready to use. And we store our products in controlled conditions in our warehouse.
What are the resources and ingredients used in the process?
We use only pure wheat bran with a little bit of water, but it is really, when it comes to amounts, small amount of energy, small amount of water. We use some wheat bran and after that we have ready product which composted ore ven eaten because it is pure wheat bran and, according to our certification, it could be used as normal food.
In terms of size, how scalable do you think Biotrem is in the near future?
Biotrem plant is fully scalable because we can produce in every country which produces wheat. So we can sell our technology or we can build new factories in every country in which they have wheat bran or they produce it as a normal product. So it is really easy to be scalable.
Who are your main customers? What do you think their motivations are to buy Biotrem’s products?
We have clients from all over the world. We sell mainly to businesses, we sell to restaurants or we sell to wholesalers and they sell to restaurants, to hotels, to restaurants, to caterers. At this point of time we don’t sell to customers because we are just at the beginning of the process so maybe next year. They buy our product because they search for something new and definitely our product is new in the market. They need to have products that are biodegradable, compostable because their clients demand such a product. And the last argument is they buy because of the fun of it, you can eat it, you can bite it. We have a lot of photos on Instagram from restaurants where people are playing with our products.