🕔Jul 24, 2007

Northern BC could soon be on the cutting edge of an industry that turns wood from undervalued tree species into intriguing disposable cutlery.
It’s a concept that could bring manufacturing and forestry jobs to northern BC, diversifying the current industry and helping buffer against the economic downturn many predict will follow the mountain pine beetle.
The product has also prompted questions from some consumers about whether anything disposable can be truly sustainable.
Behind the cutlery is Vernon-based Aspenware Inc., whose founders have invented and patented a process for laminating and molding aspen and birch veneer into attractive spoons, forks and knives. Their product, which sells under the brand name WUN (Wood Utensils Naturally), has already hit store shelves, and the company sees a need for expansion before too long.
“If we’re successful, our plan will warrant the construction of one or two more plants in BC,” says Smithers resident Lawry Lund, who has invested in the company and is helping with branding and marketing. “Right now we just have one manufacturing line. A plant will have four.”
The challenge is finding enough fiber to feed those new plants. According to long-time northerner Lund, this is where northern BC comes in.
“The first manufacturing line is in Lumby, which is not situated in the “fiber basket.” A number of places along Highway 16, from McBride to Prince Rupert, have substantial stands of aspen and birch,” says Lund.
While Lund envisions new plants in northern BC, close to a large supply of wood, he doesn’t want to see the company contribute to poor forestry. His vision sees the company building a hardwood industry in the north in which many small operators supply wood in a sustainable fashion.
“Rather than go to a major licensee, we’d rather work with “mom and pop” operations. We don’t need a lot of wood. That’s the direction we want to go. We won’t be a small company, but we want to enhance small operators’ revenue stream.”
Because cutlery is a small product, it does not require large pieces of raw material, something Lund says lends itself to small scale harvesting that has less of an impact than conventional forestry.
“You can go out and do small-scale logging in the winter,” he explains. “You can be more selective. You’re harvesting to spec, not like we do now with softwood. With this, you can go out with a snowmobile or an ATV if you wanted to and pick your trees.”
Forest certification is another aspect Lund sees the company pursuing. Under certification schemes such as that of the Forest Stewardship Council, consumers are assured the products they buy come from good forestry practices—much in the same way certified organic status applies to food.

Sustainability questions

Employing small operators, using a traditionally overlooked species, looking towards eco-certification…it sounds like the kind of thing that would please David Suzuki. But some consumers aren’t so happy.
Jonathan Herring, who works in the grocery department at Whole Foods in Vancouver, says that while the product looks nice on the shelf, it has received some less-than-positive responses from customers. They take issue with the fact the cutlery is made from trees and is still disposable.
It’s a sentiment with which Lund is familiar.
“A number of folks say, ‘well, you kill trees.’ But right now we’re buying logs and trees that have already been knocked down.”
Talking to Lund, it’s clear he doesn’t think it’s realistic to replace disposability with reusability. Instead, he says Aspenware’s goal is to take a bite out of the 100 billion pieces of plastic disposable cutlery that make their way into North American landfills every year.
“There is a need for disposable stuff,” he says, pragmatically. “You don’t want to be packing your cutlery around all over the place. If you want to consider the carbon footprint of having to manufacture steel cutlery and wash it every time, it’s substantial. This product…it’s just soil,” he says, referring to the compostible nature of the cutlery.
Plus, he adds, just because it’s disposable doesn’t mean you can’t reuse it.
Sustainability enthusiast Greg Brown of Smithers echoes Lund’s take on the roll the cutlery can play. “Like it or not, we still live in a disposable society,” says Brown. “This meets people where they’re at. It’s a stepping-stone; it’s not an end-point. Creating value from what is usually a waste product? Sounds good to me.”
Weighing the arguments, it would appear Aspenware’s concept can hold its own with the eco-crowd. But turning a novelty into a commodity requires more than a green stamp of approval.
For one, WUN cutlery is not yet affordable enough to break into the fast food chains and service outlets responsible for the bulk of plastic utensil consumption. A box containing a dozen pieces of cutlery costs $5.99, nowhere near the price of cheap plastic cutlery, of which 30 pieces can sell for less than a dollar.
The trick is reducing manufacturing costs and ramping-up overall production, a challenge the company is already working on: it’s developing a new generation of robotic machines for its Lumby plant that will improve production efficiency.
“We’re confident we’ll be able to get our numbers up,” says Lund. “People think it’s a novelty, but it will ultimately become a commodity.”
And when it does, it could add a vital piece to the economic landscape of northern BC.


Aspenware Incorporated was born when three schoolteachers from Vernon saw a television ad promoting disposable wooden cutlery from Europe. Hoping to buy rights to the technology, Bob Bigsby, his son Barry and friend Claus Gerlach flew to Germany. They were disappointed: the cutlery seemed inferior and the asking price astronomical, but the idea stuck with them.
Back in BC, the three started tinkering in their home kitchens using a modified waffle iron, trying to create a prototype that improved on the German concept.
Nine years later, they had it: laminated wooden cutlery. The challenge was then finding a way to turn their time-consuming waffle iron method into a modern high-volume manufacturing process. To this end they enlisted the help of an engineering firm, which worked with them to design machinery to efficiently reproduce their home-baked efforts.
Today, the company they formed cranks out 30,000 pieces of cutlery per day at their plant in Lumby, at the old Silver Hills Bakery building. There, Aspenware’s patented molding process turns thin veneers of aspen and birch into elegant forks, knives and spoons. Lightly coated with non-toxic confectioner’s glaze, the pieces hardly look like something you would throw away.
Next came the task of finding a market and convincing it to buy the new product. Enter Smithers resident Lawry Lund. Introduced to Aspenware through a friend, Lawry offered to help the fledgling company promote its product. He facilitated a branding process, bringing in Vancouver marketing firm Change Advertising.
The result is Wun, a contemporary brand for Aspenware’s cutlery, equally at home in upscale food stores and modern design galleries.
Under the new brand, Wun cutlery walked away with a $5,000 prize at the Swell/30 Days of Sustainability this year in Vancouver. It also drew interest from the venerable British department store Harrod’s at a trade show in Anaheim, and is being showcased by the BC government as a model of BC innovation.