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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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

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According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

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Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

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Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.