What is in the future for forks?
A Chinese company with manufacturing facilities in Upper Macungie Township is looking into that, and it will affect operations here in the Lehigh Valley.
Fuling Global Inc., which manufactures plastic tableware, began U.S. operations in 2014 to be closer to many of its major corporate clients such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Wal-Mart.
Now the company is looking to find ways to make its products, which are inherently disposable, more environmentally friendly.
Late last year, the firm gathered some of China’s top researchers in the industry from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry and Chinese Academy of Engineering. The goal was to help Fuling devise new and better ways to make its products – including those made in the Lehigh Valley – and to set the agenda for its research and development goals for 2016.
Gilbert Lee, chief financial officer for Fuling Plastic USA in Upper Macungie, said the company specializes in plastic tableware that is more environmentally friendly, but processes always can improve.
“Plastic disposable [tableware], plates and cups for the food service industry are intended of one-time use,” Lee said. “Because of that, the volume of it is huge, and we all know it’s taking up a lot of space in landfills.”
While recycling plastics is always the ideal, after decades of promoting recycling programs and significant improvements in recycling participation and availability, most people simply view some products as disposable, he said.
“You can’t change the habit, especially of people in the U.S., where we are so used to using a thing and throwing it away. People want the convenience of this,” Lee said.
At the same time, Lee said, “people are feeling guilty about this, and they’re looking to use more environmentally friendly products.”
So, he said, it’s up to manufacturers such as Fuling to develop products that are disposable, but have less of an impact on the environment.
As a result of the collaboration with the Chinese scientists, Fuling has set its sights on producing plastic dining products that are more biodegradable, Lee said.
To do that, the company is researching alternative materials, fibers or plant-based materials that can be mixed with plastic that will ensure the same product quality, but will break down more quickly after disposal.
But, Lee said, there are other factors Fuling needs to take into consideration when making such changes, including cost.
“People are willing to pay a little bit more for something that is better for the environment, but just a little bit more, not a whole lot more,” Lee said.
He said if a customer is faced with a biodegradable plastic knife that costs twice as much as a standard one, most times he or she will not buy it.
“They don’t see that little plastic knife ruining the environment,” Lee said. “They’re not going to think it’s worthwhile.”
As the company sharpens its focus on developing cost-effective, environmental-friendly plastics materials and applications, other new projects include research into technology for recyclable, heat-resistant plastic cups and plates, disposable paper-like cups and high-quality printing paper.