News from the Tennessee Valley Business

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Paper cups produced for the Navy at the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired bear a marine-friendly logo. The company supplies 14 million uncoated biodegradable marine-friendly paper cups a year.

Biodegradable cups
Memphis firm expanding from original Navy contract to coffee houses, green-minded customers

By Jane Roberts
Scripps Howard News Service

MEMPHIS — Consider the plight of the U.S. Navy in the late 1990s: Since sailors drinking coffee from disposable cups are inclined to throw them overboard, and because even the U.S. military has to pick its battles, the Navy contracted with a firm to make cups that decompose in saltwater.

That company is Clovernook Center, a nonprofit that uses proceeds to provide jobs and vocational training for people who are visually impaired.

Today, it turns out 14 million biodegradable cups a year for the Navy from its manufacturing facility in Memphis. But a budding, potentially larger market is the growing number of coffee drinkers hip to being green.

In several years, Clovernook has added contracts with coffeehouses across North America that are to pay more for a biodegradable cup.

Now it’s on the brink of adding Europe to the mix with an agreement with Biopac, a U.K.-based broker that specializes in a green-leaning clientele.

Customer base

Biopac says it has a large customer base wanting to move away from conventional drinking cups and expects Clovernook to gain ground when the outdoor event season opens in spring.

“Not only do we have a viable alternative, which is environmentally responsible, but we’re helping visually disabled people gain self-respect by working,” said Eric Graham, Biopac’s managing director.

While Clovernook’s cups are competitive with similar biodegradable products, the biggest obstacle is convincing companies that buy cheaper Styrofoam or plastic to spend more to be green.

“I’m very hopeful that this is going to grow into a large business with Biopac,” said Doug Jacques, vice president of business operations at Clovernook’s headquarters in Cincinnati.

“The Europeans are ahead of us in the States with biodegrading and composting as many things as possible.”

Clovernook — the first to commercialize the biodegradable cup — prints up to four colors in-house for customers like MTV, the Cincinnati Opera and Twinings Tea who want customized cups.

Miniumum order

Besides its earth-friendly message, the minimum order for printed cups is 15,000 compared to 100,000 common in the industry. (It also stocks a plain cup available by the package for smaller coffee shops.)

Revenue from the Memphis operation last year exceeded $2 million, which Clovernook poured back into client services, including vocational counseling, job placement and life-coping skills.

Clovernook is counting on a young crop of coffee-lovers in small shops across the planet (it can’t produce enough cups to satisfy the big players) to change what until now has been the standard definition of the insulated cup.

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