Hoping to Rid the Planet of Polystyrene Packaging, Steve Sommer Floats An A-Maize-Ingly Simple Concept

updated 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The notion popped into Steve Sommer's head last April. He and his Earth Day-enlightened family—wife Candace and two of their five children, Stephanie, 13, and Amie, 10—were thinking up alternatives to the Styrofoam peanuts that Sommer used to pack the wine and food products sold at his family-operated Alexander Valley Fruit and Trading Co. in Sonoma County, Calif. Then he spied the popcorn that his outfit offers as a side item. Eureka!

With just that kernel of an idea, Sommer 40, bought an old propane-powered popper for $1,700 and began filling 14-cubic-foot clear-plastic bags with the puffed produce, which he sells to both manufacturers and the general public for $15 per bag (a bit more than polystyrene nuggets). Although the FDA frowns upon food being used as a packing material, Sommer defends its biodegradability: "You want a product that's going to break down." (Popcorn-packed boxes shouldn't be stored.) To prove that claims for his product's insulating ability aren't so much hot air, Sommer boxed a raw egg and a wine glass with popcorn—then dropped them off a three-story building. Both survived.

So far, Sommer has sold less than 200 bags of Future Pop (daughter Jill, 18, and Stephanie came up with the name), but his new $12,000 electric popper can pop enough corn to bust a Bijou—80 cubic feet an hour—should demand rise. Popcorn packing dates at least as far back as World War II care packages, but Sommer has given it a higher calling. "Popcorn," says his comptroller, Phil Stevens, "is positive. How many people love polystyrene?"

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