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How to save the planet, a spoon at a time

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Sep 30, 2016 15:15 IST
Soma Das
Sugarcane fibre cutlery by Shunya Alternatives

Sugarcane fibre cutlery by Shunya Alternatives

As France bans disposable plastic cutlery, we look at the nascent market for edible and biodegradable cutlery in the city

It was during an in-flight meal that Hyderabad-based scientist Narayana Peesapaty (49) noticed people using a khakra to scoop rice instead of a plastic spoon. “It gave me the idea of creating a spoon using flour,” says Peesapaty, founder of Bakeys Foods. Peesapaty is a former researcher with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), an ecological farming organisation, in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh.

Edible spoons by Bakeys (Photo: Bakeys)

He eventually picked jowar (sorghum) as the key ingredient for edible cutlery: it was sturdy, nutritious, and had a long shelf life. He ran crowdfunding campaigns on Ketto and Kickstarter earlier this year to scale production. While the Ketto campaign generated approximately Rs 24 lakh, the one on Kickstarter raised $278,847 (over Rs 1 crore). Available on pre-order, the cutlery now comes in three flavours — savoury, sweet, plain (they taste like crackers). Next, they’re slated to assume other cutlery forms: chopsticks, soup spoons, forks and dessert spoons. And in case you’re not keen on eating the spoon, you can add water to help it decompose. Or, you could feed it to a pet. It’s safe, we’re told.

Read: What’s driving us to order fresh and organic produce?

Concerned about plastic wastage, France, earlier this month, became the first country to ban all disposable plastic cutlery (with effect from 2020). In India, traditionally, we ate with our hands. But, over time, metal cutlery became the preferred option at eateries, and plastic for deliveries. To a point where we’re now a major contributor to plastic waste. A 2015 study by Science magazine ranked India at number 12 with respect to mismanaged plastic waste. And the BMC’s Environment Status Report for 2013-14 indicates that Mumbai generates 7,500 metric tons of waste every day, of which nearly 9 per cent is plastic.

But change is afoot. Bakeys is just one of several companies that could revolutionise the way we see tableware.

Palm leaf cutlery by Anahata (Photo: Anahata)

Take your pick

Apart from edible cutlery, biodegradable plastic and wood could emerge as substitutes for plastic cutlery.

Mumbai-based Shunya Alternatives, run by the brother-sister duo of Yash (24) and Sachi Maniar (27), sources plates, bowls and glasses made from sugarcane fibre and birch wood from artisans in Delhi. Pappco Greenware, also city-based, sources plates and glasses made from sugarcane bagasse and bamboo fibres, from north India and China. “Last year, we did a zero-waste wedding where there was no plastic used. Now, we are working on a charge-for-cutlery model with The Little Food Co, a local delivery service. Consumers pay extra to get cutlery. Since this was activated, consumption of cutlery has gone down by 80 per cent,” says co-founder Abhishek Agarwal.

Cutlery by Pappco Ecoware made using pulp from agricultural waste (Photo: Pappco Ecoware)

Ecoware, a Delhi-based venture, uses plant biomass to make cutlery while Bengaluru-based Save Globe supplies wooden and edible cutlery (wheat flour, sugar), and areca plant tableware. Anahata, a five-month-old venture by city-based former copywriter Alok Banerjee, supplies soup bowls, plates, and spoons using betel and palm leaves.

Still a nascent market, the biodegradable ventures cater to around 1,000 bulk orders per month, and produce around 1 lakh such cutlery, with demand peaking during festive season.

“Biodegradable options are just scratching the surface of a saturated market for disposable cutlery. There are hundreds of options using styrofoam and plastic. But with greater awareness, consumers will want eco-friendly options,” says Rhea Singhal, founder of Ecoware.

Edible spoon by Save Globe (Photo: Save Globe)

Eat right

A few eateries in the city are adopting eco-friendly options. Kala Ghoda Café, Kaboom (Lower Parel), The Pantry (Fort), Birdsong (Bandra) and The Little Food Daily (Andheri) source cutlery from Shunya Alternatives and Pappco Greenware. Goila Butter Chicken delivers dishes in matkas (clay pots) sourced from Dharavi. “It adds flavour, retains temperature, and reduces the use of plastic,” says founder and chef Saransh Goila. Holachef’s delivery app allows users to choose not to get cutlery. “At least 40 per cent of our customers have opted out,” claims Saurabh Saxena, founder, Holachef.

India is an early adopter of biodegradable cutlery. Taking a cue, high-end hotels in Europe are sourcing biodegradable plates made from siali leaves (Bauhinia Vahlii) from tribal pockets of Orissa. The Telegraph reports that women from 127 tribal hamlets in Kandhamal, Sambalpur and Deogarh entered an agreement with German company, Leaf Democracy, to supply 1 lakh siali leaf plates every month.

Biodegradable cutlery by Shunya Alternatives (Photo: Shunya Alternatives)

But the biggest challenge remains the cheap pricing of plastic. Plastic spoons are priced 30p onwards, but biodegradable options cost as much as Rs 4 each. It makes eateries unwilling to make the switch. “A rise in the cost of cutlery impacts overall profitability. Right now, we are not looking to make a change,” says Paul Kinny, director-culinary, Palladium Hotel. But eateries who have chosen to go eco-conscious are, at present, absorbing the cost.

Why it matters

What makes plastic a major concern is that it takes very long to decompose, and releases carcinogens when heated, which can contaminate food. “To raise awareness, one has to ensure that biodegradable options are affordable and more easily available,” says Monisha Narke, founder of the Mumbai-based environment organisation, Are you Reducing, Reusing and Recycling (RUR).

Edible and biodegradable cutlery might be small now, but could be effective in the long run. We could wait for France to show the way. Or we do it by ourselves.