Have your plate and eat it too

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

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As governments and industry leaders around the world start to take notice of mounting plastic waste and action initiatives to slow its release into the environment, creative entrepreneurs are uncovering unconventional approaches to help point them in the right direction.

Enter edible tableware.

In recent months a swathe of countries have introduced partial or complete bans of certain plastics, chiefly plastic shopping bags, and an increasing number of food establishments have either stopped using plastic material like disposable straws and cups in their businesses, or have announced plans to do so.

Others, like Polish company Biotrem, have taken it one step further, making disposable plates, bowls and cutlery from wheat bran, a by-product in the wheat grain milling process — a factor which also makes them edible.

Biotrem says its tableware is suitable for both hot and cold meals, can be safely used in classic and microwave ovens, and is robust, stable and suitable for use “at home, on a picnic, at the bar, in open-air events or in the restaurant”. From an environmental perspective, however, the biggest selling point is that the products biodegrade in 30 days.

“Our products are an excellent alternative to most disposable tableware, ie made from paper or plastic, the production and utilisation of which is burdensome to the environment,” the company says on its website.

“Our production process does not require significant amounts of water, mineral resources, or chemical compounds. From one tonne of pure, edible wheat bran we can produce up to 10,000 units of plates or bowls,” it adds.

Making one kilo of wheat bran products generates — considering the whole wheat cultivation process, transportation, processing and utilisation — around 1.3 kg of CO2; compared to the 8.5 kg of CO2 produced in the manufacture of 1 kg of polystyrene disposable plates or cups.

The line of plates made of prawn crackers is also worth considering. Made by Japanese firm Marushige Seika K K four years ago, the “e-tray” series features edible serving plates and bowls which are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are durable enough not to break too easily.

“You can pour in water and they will still hold up for 30 minutes,” said Marushige senior managing director Katsuhiko Sakakibara as per the South China Morning Post.

Marushige Seika K K, which makes the crust for ice cream-filled “monaka” wafers, previously developed edible tableware using the monaka crust, but turned to prawn crackers — a local speciality — to improve water resistance.

The company hopes its edible food trays can help reduce the enormous amount of trash generated from plastic and polystyrene utensils at outdoor events. “We would like to promote our plates and bowls as environmentally friendly,” Sakakibara said.

There is also Yokohama-based food packaging material manufacturer Honest, which makes small cups made of edible seaweed. The cups — about 2cm deep and 4cm wide — are especially popular among mothers with young children as they can be used when making bento lunch boxes,” the company said.

For example, putting rice in a seaweed cup can be a substitute for Japanese rice balls, and filling them with different ingredients and deep-frying them turns them into tempura.

As for straws, which also feature prominently among the pollutants, metal, pasta, and paper-based alternatives are already available.

And as the quest for environmentally friendly substitutes for polystyrene foam continues, firms like Biotrem keep innovating. According to CNBC in a May 2018 report, the Warsaw-based company is moving to develop new products, such as cups, ice cream bowls and muffin moulds, as well as some that are not meant for food service. Its next line of products — made out of corn bran, cassava by-products or seaweed — probably won't be edible at all, though they will retain the environmental features.

UN Environment, which observed World Environment Day this year with a theme that was strong in its messaging — Beat Plastic Pollution — estimates that 13 million tonnes of plastic leaks into the ocean each year — equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute.

— Kimone Thompson

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