The Science of Sustainability: Green Earth Agri Card Keys made from Corn

Anyone who travels will eventually find themselves returning home with a hotel card key (or two), despite our well-intentioned interest to remember to leave it in the room or drop it by the front desk upon check out. Most are made of petroleum-based plastic.

But not the Green Earth Agri Card Keys made by USFI GreenWorks. It’s made of a durable, but completely biodegradable corn-based (or plant based) plastic, providing the same appearance and performance, but without the chemicals and waste. The product does, however, require industrial composting and not the backyard variety. Printing on the cards employs soy-based inks. The card is meant to be reusable, not to just be thrown away after one use. However, truth be told, millions of hotel card keys never find their way back to the front desk for reprogramming.  According to some in the industry, fewer than fifty percent are returned.  Some key cards get worn out and have to be replaced.

As I write about in ECOpreneuring, green businesses do not want to do less harm to the environment. They want to create products or services and operate in ways that make the world a better place. In much the same way as T.S. Designs re-invented the concept of printing on t-shirts using a completely ecologically safe process, USFI GreenWorks reinvented the form the cards take by creating the cards using plant-based plastics.  To the extend we can, we need to support these companies and push them to continue to innovate.

While there are some products, like land mines, that can never be re-imagined as green, most can — with creativity, eco-innovation and, possibly, the application of a little biomimicry. Therein rests the challenge for ecopreneurs: how to make a better product, not just an existing product better. For example, the “new” GM needs to come up with a whole new concept for vehicular transport, not just add a few more miles per gallon to the cars they make. Amazingly, Henry Ford advocated the development of plant-based materials to make seat covers, dashboards and steering wheels for his 1941 concept car.

One challenge in the pursuit of the science of sustainability, then, is to recognize that in nature there is no waste. How do we live, work and play in an environment based on this natural foundation?

A growing number of green businesses also seek to redefine what their mission is as a business – and it’s not to just make more profits for their shareholders. According to Jodi Slabaugh, USFI’s Production Manager, USFI GreenWorks was started in 2007 as a result of their marketing clients in the hospitality industry asking for more sustainable options for various aspects of their business. USFI has been around since 1984, providing services as an integrated marketing firm serving the hospitality and institutional industries.  USFI GreenWorks’ mission then became “to serve as a single-source provider of green products that offers the hospitality industry, academic and all other institutions a broad range of product choices and solutions to help reduce your carbon footprint.”

Increasingly common among the more ecopreneurial enterprises, USFI GreenWorks purchases their Agri Cards through a contract arrangement from NatureWorks LLC.  Specifically, their Agri Cards are made using the NatureWorks LLC Ingeo Biopolymer, or PLA, listed as certified compostable resins by the Biodegradale Products Institute.  According to the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), resins are the raw materials (typically in pellet form) that are converted in bags, films, food serviceware and, of course, hotel card keys.  All BPI-approved resins and products meet stringent, scientifically based specifications.

USFI GreenWorks is admittedly experimenting, trying out different approaches to sustainability, some quite viable like the Agri Cards.  Others will likely turn out less so. They’re practicing intelligent fast failure, as any innovative company should. For example, due do the highly toxic nature of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), their bioPVC cards provide little by way of an eco-friendly solution to hotel card keys. According to Center for Health, Environment & Justice, PVC products are dangerous to our health and environment from start to finish — in the factory where they’re made, at home, and in the trash — releasing poisonous chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects. That the bioPVC cards biodegrade doesn’t mitigate the toxicity of the PVC itself.  Maybe they’ll discover a way to incorporate the proprietary enzymes that break down their bioPVC cards into their biobased Agri Card keys so even backyard gardeners can add them to their compost pile.

Biobased plastics are compostable, admits the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. According to their findings and synthesis of the research, however, these plastics won’t break down in regular landfills or in your backyard compost.  They can be effectively composted in a large-scale facility where the biobased plastics will degrade within 45 days. As added bonuses, the production of bioplastics can help contribute to rural economic development by providing new markets for farmers’ crops (I’d love to see the farmers get together and start making these value-added products themselves).  The biobased plastics also use fewer fossil fuels compared to petrochemical plastics, even after accounting for the fuel needed to plant and harvest the corn or other feedstocks.

So, if you run or work at a hotel that uses card keys, it’s time to green another aspect of your guest experience with the Agri Cards.

If you’re like me, an ecotraveler who always fills out the guest comment card at hotels, add a note to every one you stay at. Explain how they can green their operations beyond compact fluorescent bulbs and fair-trade, shade grown coffee offered in the rooms by switching their card keys to Green Earth Agri Cards.

Now more than ever, general managers and owners of hotel properties are looking for ways to retain and attract new customers. They want to be a part of the solution, not the problem of waste or climate change. Why not share a message printed on something that guests use and end up carrying around with them during their entire stay?

And if we forget to turn our hotel key cards back in? Well, compost happens.

Photography: USFI GreenWorks

  1. Jona Earth

    Hotel room key cards have been around for so long now, the magenetic strip kind and the ones with the holes in before that, so I’m actually quite suprised most modern hotels aren’t using some other means. Though I’m not quite sure what. I mean you could have a thumb/fingerprint/eye scanner, but then you’d have all kinds of privacy issues with hotels keeping personal fingerprint records etc. Personally I like the idea of an iris scanner because it means you can’t lose your key.

    Or perhaps someone might invent a sophitsicates voice activated door lock, that would probably have less privacy issues than prints or iris scans.

  2. Max

    PLA isn’t a preferable alternative to current plastics. PLA plastic is made from plant products but that doesn’t make it environmentally or consumer friendly. PLA is made from genetically altered corn (here in the U.S) that isn’t fit for human consumption, will not biodegrade in a landfill environment, causes the increased use of pesticides which are causing an ecological disaster in the Mississippi delta region, reduces food grain supplies raising food prices, Reduces food grains that should be exported to countries that need our grain, and the only way to properly dispose of PLA is in a commercial composting site. Try finding a commercial composting site near you. Most PLA will end up in a landfill where it will languish for a long time. Cards made from PLA are going to end up in the same place as current plastic cards…the landfill, and they won’t go away any faster than the stuff we now have.
    In my mind a plastic product should be designed so that it was biodegradable either an anaerobic or aerobic environment, which is the environment found in most landfills.
    There are better alternatives. Plastics have been developed which are biodegradable and will biodegrade in a landfill. For example, the ENSO biodegradable plastic bottle with EcoPure is a plastic product that is designed to biodegrade in a landfill. Other plastic products that are designed with EcoPure will also biodegrade in a landfill environment and they can be recycled.
    “Bottles for a healthier earth”

  3. faisal

    USFI/Greenworks also offers a Bio-Degradable PVC Key Card that looks, works and is as durable as a regular Key Cards. This perhaps is an alternative to those who feel that the PLA Key Card is “not green enough”. If one is looking for Bio-Degradable…this might work.

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