FOOD AND ECOLOGY

First spoons, now chopsticks: Edible cutlery is being developed for a zero-waste future

The challenge is to make the cutlery durable and yet tasty.

This month, diners at Casa Afeliz Ginza and Umato, two restaurants in Tokyo, bit into their chopsticks, once they were done with their meal, and proceeded to eat them. According to Rocket News, the edible chopsticks, developed by the Tokyo-based Marushige Confectionery, were made from igusa, a reed used in the manufacturing of tatami mats.

While the taste of these chopsticks might not have people excited, the fact that they are edible and bio-degradable does. The chopsticks are part of a slow revolution building to eliminate disposable cutlery made from non-biodegradable material, mostly plastic.

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An Indian company, Bakey’s, has been manufacturing spoons made from rice, millet and wheat since 2011. In March 2016, it posted on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to find funding for the mass production of these spoons. The initiative by Naryanana Peesapaty, a former researcher with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, reached its goal (and more) within a month.

“Just throw the spoons in mud or in a potted plant to decompose after use if you do not wish to eat it,” says the Bakey’s website about its product, which comes in three flavours. The spoons are nutritious, use no preservatives and have a shelf life of almost three years.

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It was after being handed a greasy, already used plastic spoon, to eat his plate of idli sambhar at a restaurant that Peesapaty decided to develop a product which can become a substitute for disposable cutlery and one which can decompose when exposed to outside elements in a matter of days.

The first prototype, a small spoon, would break too easily and was too small for practical use. The design that followed looked more like a regular stainless steel spoon, but to the disappointment of Peesapaty and his wife and business partner, Pradnya Keskar, they would break at the slightest pressure into a bowl of food.

“What you see now was made in 2014 and we have been selling that shape ever since,” said Keskar. “This is the sturdiest spoon. We made prototypes and samples of different shapes, but not commercially yet as the investment is huge. None of the shapes of cutlery we make will break or dissolve in any hot or cold liquid, as it has no fat content. It will break only when pressed harder in the wrong angle or just for fun if someone drops it on the floor to deliberately break it.”

The need for edible cutlery and other plastic substitutes has become more pressing since the use of plastic products has been banned in almost 10 states in India, including the Capital.

The video uploaded on their Kickstarter page claims that every year, 120 billion pieces of disposable plastic cutlery are discarded in India. According to a study, published in Science journal in 2010, of the 192 countries that are responsible for almost 12.7 metric tonnes of plastic waste entering the ocean via their respective coastlines, India ranks 12th in the list. A survey conducted by India’s Central Pollution Control Board in 60 cities in 2015 revealed that they generate 15,342.5 tonnes of plastic waste per day.

Peesapaty said that if the world is given an alternative, these numbers could go down.

Military grade cutlery

Bakey’s strategy has been to highlight the health benefits of using cutlery made from natural substances rather than its ecological advances. It explains on its website that “plastic contains chemical complexes, several of which are neuro-toxic and carcinogenic. These leach into food. In fact, even the so called food grade cutlery is that, where this leaching is within permissible levels of 60 Parts Per Million. When you know that the substances that leach can cause cancer and impact your nervous system, why should you allow even one part per million”.

In various videos uploaded on YouTube, the founder of Bakey’s Food Pvt Ltd, can be seen biting off a piece of his spoon and exclaiming, “Delicious!”. According to a BuzzFeed experiment, though, using these spoons was not a smooth ride, with it sometimes breaking in the middle of a meal, altering the taste of coffee and it being downright strange to eat one’s cutlery.

India’s Defence Food Research Laboratory too has been working on developing and introducing a line of environmental-friendly cutlery for the armed forces. In February 2017, a Deccan Herald report said: “Since the patent application for these indigenously developed cutlery is being processed, Pandit Srihari S, technical officer of DFRL, said that he could not reveal the material used in their making. ‘When you eat an ice cream, you eat the cone, too. We produced this cutlery with the same thought-process,’ Srihari said.”

Scientists have been experimenting for almost a year, testing materials to see which one can maintain form and hold for a while before crumpling or getting soaked through. There is also the need to make these as light as possible, to reduce the burden on the soldiers.

Apart from what are mostly tasteless and cracker-like spoons and forks that have made news in the market, there are also biscotti spoons which come in different flavours – fudge, vanilla, chocolate – and can be dipped straight into a cup of coffee to stir in some sugar and then bitten into for a perfect snack.

Edible spoons seem like the cool new thing with innovations like, well, “The Edible Spoon Maker”, in the works. A kitchen appliance being developed in the US, the Edible Spoon Maker works like a waffle iron in concept, but instead of waffles, you get fresh spoons that can be made out of store-bought dough, phyllo pastry, pancake mix or anything that you feel could hold up as the real thing in under 5 minutes.

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Twitter seems to be excited about the prospect of never having to wash spoons ever again.

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