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Business, Environment, STEM

Edible Cutlery Is One Solution To The Plastics Pollution Problem

 

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Image of Bakeys edible spoon with rice

 

I stumbled upon a post for edible spoons: These spoons are crackers that one can eat after you are done with your meal [Ref 1], while reading an online newsletter. “Sounds interesting,” I tell myself. “Be sure to read that post before closing your browser.” So, I did and watched the accompanying video as well.

From the information provided, I learned that these edible spoons are:
• made from millet, rice, and wheat
• taste like crackers
• come in a variety of flavors
• suitable for vegetarians and vegans
• have a shelf life of three (3) years

Bakeys makes these and other edible utensils. The company is an Indian edible cutlery manufacturing startup based in Hyderabad, Telangana. It was founded in 2010 by former ICRISAT researcher Narayana Peesapaty as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable utensils prepared with plastic, wood and bamboo.

The edible utensils are 100% vegan, vegetarian and is purely Halal. They are baked at high temperature to make them crisp, hard and moisture free. The product can be made totally gluten free by removing wheat for customized orders which should be available mid-2017. Sorghum is gluten free and very high on micro nutrients.

Question: What peaked my interest in this product?
Answer: My increasing awareness of the growing plastic pollution problem that we have saddled on Mother Earth.

Plastic pollution comes in many forms, however, top of mind for me are plastic bottles and grocery bags. Here are some facts about plastic pollution (Source: Ecowatch [Ref 2]):

• Fifty (50) percent of the plastic we use is used just once and throw away.
• Five percent (5%) of the plastics we produce is recovered.
• Americans throw away 35 billion plastic water bottles every year. (Source: Brita)
• Approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide on an annual basis. More than one million bags are used every minute.
• Plastic constitutes approximately 90% of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile.
• One (1) million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans.
• Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).
• Plastic chemicals can be absorbed by the body— 93% of Americans age six or older test positive for BPA (a plastic chemical).

Add to the above the large volume of plastic utensils that consumers use and throw away each day. Business Insider estimates that the U.S. tosses 40 billion plastic utensils each year. While I was unable to get an exact estimate of the volume of plastic utensils that is produced each year, when you add the populations of India and China to the above estimate, one can easily see how plastic utensils add to the growing plastic pollution problem.

Wide-spread Use: One of the reasons plastic cutlery has such wide-spread use is that it is cheap to make. For small restaurants, cafes and other food vendors that operate on thin margins, these items have become a staple for doing business. Think about that for just a minute and count the number of small restaurants, cafes, and food trucks in the United States. Now add to that the potential number of these establishments in other countries.

The other primary reason plastic cutlery enjoys wide-spread use is that it is easy to use. Eating establishments don’t need a dishwasher, and if they have one, they don’t need to run it very often to clean metal spoons, forks, and knives. Therefore, whether it is take-out or eat-in, customers discard their cutlery once they have finished eating. That’s also true for many events or parties where food is served. The habit of our throw-away culture is to simply toss the items left on the tray or table into the trash and move on.

Single-use Means Disposable: While all disposable cutlery is not de-signed the same, mostly all are characterized as single-use. Keren Perles and Rebecca Scudder tell us why: Plastic eating utensils are called “single use” for a reason. Unlike plastic reusable containers, disposable cutlery is made of materials that are designed only for one use. Using them more than once, and washing them in between, can cause the plastic to break down and enter your food. When plastic breaks down, it also begins to act as a magnet for bacteria. Not only that, but the nooks and crannies in cutlery provide a safe haven for some bacteria to form, and even the hard pressure of your dishwasher may not be able to remove them completely. [Ref 3]

Recycling Nightmare: Most plastic cutlery is made from two monomers, polystyrene and polypropylene. Expanded polystyrene is more commonly referred to as Styrofoam. It is very difficult to recycle Styrofoam, and most municipalities simply don’t. The other problem is the size of each unit. Plastic cutlery is small and is a nightmare to handle. Therefore, plastic cutlery that is put into a recycling bin is usually just sorted out at the recycling facility and sent to a landfill. Municipal and private recyclers do not consider them economically feasible to recycle.

Last September, the Washington Post reported that France would be the first country to enact a ban on plastic utensils. The law is not scheduled to go into effect until 2020, and some exceptions would be allowed for items made of compostable, bio-sourced materials. While similar laws have not been enacted in the U.S., here’s one thing that you can do to reduce plastic cutlery waste:

Refuse single-serving packaging, excess packaging, straws and other disposable plastics. Instead, carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at work, for eat-in or take-out meals at smaller restaurants, potlucks, picnics, or just about any other situation or event where plastic utensils may be provided.

This brings me back to the topic of edible utensils. Bakeys is on to something that falls into the find a need and fill it category. Indian scientist Narayana Peesapaty set out to reinvent the disposable spoon about 10 years ago. I emphasize 10 years to note that every new product idea or discovery is not an overnight sensation. At the time, Peesapaty still had a day job. The idea came to him while he was on a field visit in the sorghum-growing district of Mahabubnagar. He was served roti, or flat-bread, made from the grain. The bread hardened as it cooled and proved to be a perfect tool for shoveling up curry and lentils.

As Peesapaty shares in an interview with the Wall Street Journal [Ref 4]: Sometime later, staring at the white plastic spoon that came with an in-flight meal, he remembered that roti. “So many million tons of plastic garbage,” he thought. “Can we not do something about this?” The idea: if we could eat our utensils after a meal instead of throwing them out, that would go a long way toward slowing the world’s rising tide of plastic garbage. But first he had to work out a few baking problems.

If making the spoons proved difficult, selling them was not easier. Sales were rather dismal until a team commissioned by Better India, a Bangalore-based website that focuses on uplifting news stories, came to shoot a video about Bakeys. On March 15, the three-minute, 40-second clip went live on the site, and everything exploded. Emails started flooding in at one per second. Each time Peesapaty finished taking one call, he’d hang up and find dozens more waiting. Better India had previously published a short article on Bakeys that had gotten good traffic, so Dhimant Parekh, the site’s co-founder, figured the video, made for around $2,500, would go big too. “Not this big,” though, Parekh says. “Not this big at all.” Other sites and news outlets picked up the film, helping it spread with astonishing speed. It racked up 100,000 views in the first half-hour and five million in the first week, says Parekh.

Business Insider reports that Bakeys’ Kickstarter campaign had a goal of £14,000 (about $18,000 USD today) but it raised over £193,000 (just under $250,000 USD today). After a slow start, and a decade of development, the company is in the expansion mode. The company is in talks with potential investors in Europe, India and other places raise $25 million.

It is my hope that the ability to scale-up production and increase manufacturing volume will help drive down the wholesale and retail cost to consumers. Bon Appetit!

Sources cited:

  1. These spoons are actually crackers you can eat when you are done with your meal, by Leon Siciliano and David Ibekwe, May 10, 2017 in Business Insider, video, http://www.businessinsider.com/bakeys-spoons-edible-taste-like-crackers-india-plastic-pollution-cutlery-2017-5?utm_content=bufferaac20&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer-ti
  2. 22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It), by Nicole D’essandro for EcoWatch, April 7, 2014, https://www.ecowatch.com/22-facts-about-plastic-pollution-and-10-things-we-can-do-about-it-1881885971.html
  3. Can You Recycle Plastic Eating Utensils?, by Keren Perles and Re-becca Scudder for Bright Hub, December 29, 2010.
  4. Can An Edible Spoon Save The World?, by Raymond Zhong for the Wall Street Journal Magazine, October 25, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-a-spoon-save-the-world-1477405417

 

 

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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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