Tony Prudence '89: From Fork to Fertilizer

Tony Prudence ’89 shows that ecology-minded companies can do a booming business.  by George Sapio

Tony Prudence is passionate; his eyes light up and his voice rises when he talks about his work. That work is bringing compostable serviceware — everything from knives and forks to plates, cups, and napkins, all biodegradable — to his customers. Since 2006 Tony has been convincing college and university campus dining facilities managers all over New York State to make the switch from serviceware designed to end up in a landfill to the kind with a secondary use as compost.

“Educating the customer is the most important thing,” says Tony, who is vice president of his family’s Ithaca-based business, F&T Distributing. “Most folks [at first] say they can’t use the compostable items because they cost more up front. I show them how misleading that is. Compostable items translate into valuable materials down the line. What usually gets customers to change their thinking — besides realizing the negative environmental impact of noncompostable items — is the possibility of someone paying them for their garbage!”

The cutlery F&T sells is made of polylactic acid (PLA), a resin derived entirely from natural corn starch. The forks, spoons, and knives look almost identical to the standard petroleum-based plastic cutlery used in commercial eateries and sold for home use. In a high-heat commercial compost operation, PLA cutlery can decompose in 90-180 days. (It would take a year or longer to become compost in a home system, so the products are much more suitable to institutional use.) The plates and bowls are all made in the United States of 100 percent recycled paper fiber (mostly milk carton trimmings). Tony is quick to point out that not one tree is sacrificed to make them. “Every compostable item can fulfill its job as something a student will use while eating a meal,” Tony says, “and then, instead of uselessly adding to the local landfill, go on to help fertilize someone’s crops for the next generation of food.” Some of Tony’s institutional clients sell their compostables to compost facilities who process and then sell it to municipalities, farmers, or individuals to use in parks, farms, and gardens.

Convincing institutional dining facilities to use the new serviceware is only half the job, Tony points out. Making sure the serviceware gets properly disposed of instead of just thrown in the regular trash is the other half. “For the system to work properly,” he says, “there needs to be a great deal of education. This is a major habit change. Not only do we install specially marked waste receptacles to collect the used items, but a lot of our inventory — such as the plates, in this case around the rims — is clearly and boldly marked in soy-based ink ‘100 percent compostable.’ This communicates to the consumer how to handle the material.”

Tony’s parents, Frank and Dianne, bought F&T in 1971. At that time they carried candy and tobacco, but over the years they gave up the tobacco and moved into food service. Tony joined the business soon after graduating from IC with a degree in commercial recreation and minors in business and corporate communication. He worked his way up on the food service side, where the company had many college and university clients, including Ithaca College.

Tony kept an eye on food service trends. F&T began providing vegan, vegetarian, and organic foods in the early 1990s, and when Tony saw that campuses were looking at becoming more sustainable, he realized quickly that food service was the area likely to benefit most from the movement. “Ithaca College,” he says, “was and still is out in front of [its] peer group in advancing sustainability.”

In 2006 he began offering compostable items in response to the increasing clamor from his clients. Already using them are a dozen of his 62 college and university clients, and he expects to see that number rise significantly in the next year or so.In the short time he’s been at it, Tony has found himself becoming not just a supplier, but a consultant. Working extensively with Ithaca College’s composting “guru,” Mark Darling ’97, supervisor of recycling and resource management programs, Tony helps not only his own customers but other businesses all over New York State restructure their recycling and waste management processes. To Tony it’s not just business; it’s helping turn around a wasteful process and prevent more ecological damage. Passing on the message is an important part of Tony’s vocation; helping the technology to spread, establishing goodwill among businesspeople, and educating potential partners and clients should accelerate the changeover process from nonsustainable to sustainable.

Tony sees himself as forward thinking: “Opportunistic, but in a good way,” he smiles. “I have a chance to make a positive social impact. It’s obvious that the way things are being done now will have to change, and I’d like to think I’m helping make that happen in places that will have the greatest effect. Colleges have thousands of students; we can make them aware how important it is to think globally and consider what happens to the disposable items they use.”

Compostable serviceware is still pretty new. Tony focuses on where things will be several years down the road. He’s doing all he can at present to effect positive change, but he admits it’s a long-term, even generational, problem. “My job,” he muses, “is to take care of tomorrow.”