Friend or Foam

For some, starting a business is all about natural beauty.

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Krista Ruchaber, 35, moved to Hawaii in 2000, in part because of how beautiful it is. She started Styrophobia last year to help keep it that way. "I kept seeing lunch plates and boxes piling up on the beach, and it was ruining the environment," she says.

Styrophobia sells biodegradable and compostable food containers to replace the plastic and plastic foam ones that are frequently used. 

Before starting her company, Ruchaber was a full-time acupuncturist. "My concerns for health issues led me to understand the harmful effects that plastic and [plastic foam] can have on the body," she says. She and her team have been surprised, however, to learn how little others know about these materials. "When you ask people about [plastic foam], most people say you shouldn't put it into the microwave, but they don't know why. They don't know that it has been linked to health ailments and environmental concerns."

Styrophobia sells its products in local stores, restaurants and schools throughout Hawaii and is expanding its national distribution. Ruchaber projects revenue of $500,000 this year. When it comes to cost, Ruchaber and her team spend a lot of time educating people that expense isn't just about price point. "Our products may cost a few cents more, but that doesn't take into consideration the savings in both health care and the environment," she says. Ruchaber has also found that people are willing to pay more to feel that they're doing the right thing.

Currently, Styrophobia's products are made from cornstarch, sugar cane fibers and reed grass, which it sources from manufacturers in Asia, Europe and the U.S. Midwest. Styrophobia's goal, though, is to close the loop on production by using locally grown products, manufacturing items in Hawaii and having them composted there after use.

As the company expands, Ruchaber jokes that she'll eventually have to choose a tag line. "Right now we use 'There's no home for foam,' 'Don't plastic the Pacific,' and ‘Saving the world one plate lunch at a time.' We can't figure one out, because we are so passionate about this issue."

By JJ Ramberg, the host of MSNBC’s small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch.com.

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