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The biodegradable dry erase markers from Loka. (Loka Photo)

Cal McAllister was a long way from work and any whiteboards when inspiration struck. Vacationing in Thailand with his family, he was excited to show his little girls the beautiful beaches. Instead they got a lesson in the pervasive nature of single-use plastic.

“There were more bottle caps than seashells and there were plastic single-use grocery bags hanging from branches over the water,” McAllister said. “And it was just really gross. Unfortunately it’s what I remember.”

Talking to a co-worker who had the same experience, and motivated by a desire to create change, McAllister sought a solution. Standing in front of a whiteboard preparing to scribble ideas, one answer was right in his hand.

“There was this single-use dry erase marker,” McAllister said. “The body is plastic, the nib is plastic, the cap is plastic, the ink is soaked in plastic — it’s all garbage. So we said, ‘What if we start here?’ And the concept behind the whole project is when people stand in front of a whiteboard looking to change the world, we want them to think about the planet.”

Loka is the world’s first dry erase marker made of completely compostable materials, and it’s the first project from McAllister’s Creativity Solves Everything, an incubator out of Paper Crane Factory, which helps early stage companies develop creative solutions. The marker is being floated via a Kickstarter seeking $20,000 in crowdfunding.

(Loka Photo)

Surely almost everyone is familiar with dry erase markers and their use in office settings. Walk into any tech company in Seattle and you’re likely to see a collection of notes and ideas scribbled across whiteboards on wheels or on walls painted with wipeable surfaces. McAllister said office supplies are a $6 billion business and the convenience of throw-away plastic — from markers to tape dispensers — is a huge part of it.

“Really what we set out to do is, instead of throwing a dry erase marker away and having that be cathartic, we wanted that to feel gross,” McAllister said. “We had no idea how difficult it would be.”

The body of the Loka marker is bio pulp paper, sort of like craft paper. It features a wool nib, wool ink wells, and a biodegradable plastic base to hold the nib and the inside of the cap. The ink source is still being developed, even with an eye toward natural pigments and inert ingredients in a food-grade solvent — “ink you can drink.” The goal is to have a zero-impact marker that can be chucked in the compost bin.

As with any change in human behavior, education would need to be a big component of the process. Compost facility workers would need to be aware that Loka is compostable so they don’t reject a load because they misidentified something as plastic. Coloring the Loka like a toilet paper tube is a start.

But Loka can’t just be biodegradable. It has to be a great dry erase marker, that lasts just as long or longer than leading brands such as Expo. Like almost anything, a quick search on Amazon illustrates just how readily and cheaply those products can be had.

Expo, a popular brand of dry erase markers. (Amazon screen shot)

“It was really easy to make a $40 biodegradable marker,” McAllister said laughing. “The challenge, however, is making one that costs just around $1 out the door to make, because we have to be competitive with the regular markers, which are about $1, including their ridiculous markup. … It’s a race to the bottom for those guys.”

The Loka team of engineers and designers in Seattle has been dealing with the challenges of prototyping, sampling and sourcing, as well as cost landmines. They will use the Kickstarter to determine whether they can build the tooling to go from craft product to mass production.

Markers come in two different three-color packs: Midnight Pool Party and Royal Tiger Cash. A variety of pledge amounts and product pairings are being offered to entice Kickstarter backers. Estimated delivery is April 2020.

“When I start out doing projects like these, developing these products, they sure sound simple,” McAllister said. “And then like everything else … guess what? If it was simple it would be done.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Cal McAllister’s surname.

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