Tableware made from wheat bran is already popular in Europe, but these oven-safe, eco-friendly plates and bowls are still new to Australia.
"Your idea is absurd."
Inventors regularly hear this sort of thing in response to their ideas. Jerzy Wysocki, the son of a miller in Poland, was told the same by his colleagues when he suggested making tableware from wheat bran.
However, the stubborn miller did not give up and after spending around10 years and more than six million euros, he finally created a hardy yet biodegradable plate that be can be used for soup and microwaved. It can even be put in the oven up to 180 degrees.
Today, the Polish company Biotrem produces around 15 million of these plates per year, with sales increasing annually by 100-200 per cent.
It is expected that figure will soon skyrocket, thanks to the European Union's decision to ban plastic plates in 2021.
'I was looking for a business niche close to my beliefs'
Elena Stepanova moved to Australia from Moscow in 2011, and now resides in Sydney's Northern Beaches. With previous experience working in large international companies she hoped to start her own business, which would resonate with her ideas of sustainable living.
“I did a lot of research on what kind of products became popular in other countries, but hadn’t been introduced to Aussies," Stepanova said. "I considered special solar panels, electric scooters, and many other ideas. When I discovered these plates, I loved this idea 100 per cent.”
In June, Elena sent her first email to the manufacturer in Poland, and by August she had already launched her company "CleanPlate", which distributes the eco-friendly product in Australia.
“When I emailed them and explained my vision, they connected me with a person in Australia who also contacted them with a similar proposal. That how we met with Matthias [her business partner] and as our ideas were very close, and we decided to run the company together.”
'Our current task is to educate local consumers'
Elena says that so far their company’s revenues are modest as the Australian market is yet to embrace such novel ideas, but they have already picked up their first contracts.
Sydney University canteens now use only their tableware, and the disposable plates are likely to appear soon on Harris Farm supermarket shelves.
“This is a very new product for Australia," Stepanova says, "so we have a big task to educate people, to explain what it is made of, how it works, why it is better than, for example, paper plates."
“I am very passionate about this product and see great potential here in Australia, where people love outdoor events. We are planning to expand the product line and will soon be selling bowls, straws, and cutlery. In the future, it may be possible to make gluten-free options, for example. I have many ideas!”
'Friends were happy to taste the plates'
Stepanova emphasises that no chemicals are used during the manufacturing process as the tableware is made only from natural wheat bran and water. Therefore, the product is not only healthy to consume, but completely biodegradable. In weather conditions with a little humidity, wheat bran products decompose within two to four weeks.
“Our plates have a rather premium look, so they can be used at stylised picnics, or even at weddings," says Stepanova. "It would be great to start using these plates at festivals and other events instead of plastic."
“All my friends have already tasted these plates. The taste is very similar to the bran flakes that we add to yogurts and consider good for digestion... If you don’t mind dry cereal flakes, you will probably like it. The idea is not to eat the whole plate, but that it's so natural that it's even edible!”
As this is a new product not yet produced on the scale of plastic tableware, the wheat bran plates are more expensive than their plastic counterpart. According to Stepanova, the price is close to the cost of other non-plastic alternatives to plastic, retailing at around a dollar per unit.