Sharina Perry tried to enjoy a soft drink at a local eating establishment a few years ago, but she couldn’t help thinking about plastic waste.
The paper straw that came with her drink came apart before she was done. This spurred a train of thought about single-use plastics, paper alternatives and whether there might be a better solution for the planet’s environment and its people.
She began searching for a material that’s more durable than paper replacements, more biodegradable than plastic, is more compostable, is 100% recyclable and doesn’t release micro-plastics into the ground or aquifers when it is disposed of in a landfill.
In short, it led her to question the global plastic consumption as a whole, and what might be done to help.
“When I ask a question, it really is based upon my belief that often times we can see a problem, right? So, the problem here is plastic waste,” Perry said. “How do you solve it?”
Now, after founding a new company called Utopia Plastix and developing a novel way to produce imitation plastics using a plant-based resin, Perry is actively working to solve that problem.
Plastic waste is a growing global problem
Plastics production in the U.S. has climbed by more than 900% since 1960, from 390,000 U.S. tons then to nearly 36 million tons in 2018, according to data published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Of that, nearly 27 million tons were deposited in landfills in 2018.
The problem isn’t just local.
Across the globe, nearly half of all global plastic produced is designed to be used only once and thrown away, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. One million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
Traditionally, petroleum products have been used to create polymer resins that manufacturers use to make various plastic items. After those are used, they often are disposed of in landfills where they ultimately degrade into pollutants called micro-plastics.
Because of these issues of waste and environmental harm, some companies are pursuing initiatives to remove single-use plastics like bottles, bags and straws from their product lines, while local, regional and even some national governments are banning their use.
While paper substitutes are growing in popularity, there are some other downsides beyond soggy straws like the one encountered by Perry.
Increased paper consumption often leads to cutting down more trees and removing their beneficial carbon-absorbing capabilities, she said.
But Perry, whose career has involved work developing cannabidiol (CBD)-based products sold overseas to treat certain types of illnesses, thought there might be other plants that could provide a possible solution.
She ultimately created and tested a straw using plant-based resin as a prototype and dropped it into a cold liquid, where it actually hardened.
Then, she dropped it into a pot where she was boiling beeswax at 340 degrees to see what would happen. It didn’t break down.
From there, she sent samples of her resin to Hoffmaster, a major manufacturer of consumable plastics, for additional testing. The resin worked.
Since then, Perry trademarked Utopia Plastix and says she has been supplying vendors with resin used to make straws, cutlery and food packaging products. Those vendors are selling products to distributors with national footprints.
One vendor, GCA Products Inc. in Dallas, is producing straws using Utopia Resin for Ben E. Keith, a food and beverage distributor.
“We’ve had a ton of people come in and say they have the next-best resin,” said Hunter Dunlap, GCA’s vice president of operations. “But Sharina is one of the only ones that stayed alive. Through Sharina’s dedication and partnership, we are actually producing straws as we speak for (food product distributor) Ben E. Keith.
“It’s just kind of a win-win-win all the way down,” Dunlap said. “We saw that early on, and decided to start the partnership with Sharina. It’s gone very well.”
Past experiences were key in founding Utopia Plastix
Growing up in New Mexico and then Oklahoma, Perry watched and helped her grandfather, a recycler of used materials who owned land in several states, build a profitable business for his family.
Farmers matter, especially those who run family businesses and face challenges, she said.
“I saw what could happen when things were produced from the land, and I learned that even people who came from a place where they had not been gifted or afforded resources could use innovative ideas and create opportunities for their families and their futures,” Perry said. “I was fortunate to grow up in a family who were good stewards in who they were as people, so I had great examples around me. I am thankful that I grew up seeing that.”
Her plans for Utopia Plastix call for support of farmers by strategically placing intake and processing centers for the plants it converts into resin within 200 miles of where they are grown.
Perry isn’t disclosing what plants are used to make the resin for now, though she did say that hemp is not part of her recipe.
Utopia does use crops that absorb carbon (at a rate of four to five times that of trees), put nutrients back into the ground, don’t require pesticides and actually remove heavy metals from the ground, Perry said.
The centers only will be built once contracts to take the resin they produce are in place.
“At the end of the day, the farmers win, which means a local economy wins, which means a community wins, and so we like the idea of using farming and production of everyday items,” Perry said. “We want to have a guarantee that every farmer will be paid for what he brings (to processing centers).”
The company currently has one center undergoing upgrades in Louisville, Kentucky, and there are plans to open one in Oklahoma City in September. Perry hopes to open other facilities as it continues to pursue supply agreements with plastics manufacturers around the world. Each center will operate around the clock and be designed to produce about 40,000 pounds of resin every hour.
Her solution, she explained, also helps manufacturers because it supplies them with an environmentally friendly polymer that is cheaper than other alternative products and enables them to operate without having to retool their operations to produce straws, bags, cups, plates or cutlery to meet their customers’ needs.
“Manufacturers are in the business of doing what manufacturers are doing every day, right? They are not thinking about the social things going on around them. What we have found is that many manufacturers, especially in the Midwest, didn’t know about this push to get away from single-use plastics on the East and West Coasts.”
One company that’s tried out Utopia’s plant-based resin is Poly Films Inc. in Oklahoma City, which produces blown plastic bags and other products for numerous clients.
Kevin McGehee, a principle co-owner of the family-owned business, said Thursday that he and Perry have been working recently on bringing potential clients to his business that would purchase materials it produces using Utopia resin.
“It was pretty much a drop-in product for us, which is always nice to have when you use different resins,” said McGehee, noting the company didn’t have to reconfigure its equipment to use Utopia’s product.
Perry said her utopia is a process she follows to look at a problem and figuring out how to solve it in a holistic way.
“People need to think about how we treat each other and work together to make positive impacts as part of a human global initiative,” Perry said. “2020 showed us the importance of that. We call this a journey to utopia on purpose because utopia is a place where people work together and everyone benefits from that. We encourage everyone to join us on that journey.”