Human beings generate a staggering amount of garbage. Since the invention of plastic, we've generated over nine billion tons of the stuff, an amount so staggering that even the metaphors used to convey it — 25,000 Empire State Buildings, 80 million blue whales — is itself too vast to comprehend. Of that enormous amount, less than ten percent has been recycled. In the haze of warm weather partying, we seem to be even more wasteful; in 2015, Bonnaroo organizers reported that festival-goers left behind 15 pounds of trash per person over just two days, most of which was disposable cups, utensils, straws and beverage containers.
This level of garbage is staggering but also, sadly, understandable. This weekend, we Americans will observe Labor Day. There will be parties and shows and barbeques and, inevitably a stream of waste left in their wake. We will throw away our first plate before realizing we want dessert. We will lose track of our Solo cup and grab a second. We will drop our forks on the ground and reach for another.
So what to do? The most virtuous and obvious solution to just use real plates, but since our generation hates doing dishes, that's clearly not an option. But there is a new crop of companies that's found one way to make truly green tableware: Make it edible, either for your human guests or the microbes in your backyard compost.
VICE Impact tested two companies' wares to get a taste of the future.
Loliware's edible cups are perhaps the best known of the compostable-disposables movement. Founded by Parsons classmates Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker, they've risen in profile after a successful appearance on Shark Tank and subsequent mentions in Fast Company and The New York Times, among others. The cups are fully edible and will break down just like food products in an at-home compost.
They are, first and foremost, a vessel and not a snack.
I sampled several of the company's current offerings along with the forthcoming Frida collection, inspired by the brand's Mexican manufacturing base.
All the cups have a faint sweetness: The Frida flavor has the bright sugary kick of citrus but without the tart pucker, like a creamsicle. The sold-out Matcha (my favorite of the bunch) captures the sugary, grassy bite of strong, honey'ed tea. They aren't flavored to the degree that they would over power anything other than water but they do have enough oomph to pair nicely with different beverages, as suggested by the cocktail recipes on the company's website.
The cups are rubbery and flexible when warm and then stiffen when filled with a cool beverage. But they never quite reach the sturdy hand-feel of, say, a Solo cup. They are challenging to consume whole. They are, first and foremost, a vessel and not a snack. (Confession: I ended up mouthing the blue Frida cup like a teething baby in an attempt to bite off a corner.)
Loliware's current line is chic if prohibitively priced at nearly $4 a cup and at first blush seems like a novelty item. But the company has big plans; they're in development on "the world's first edible, fully compostable straw" along with a new and (based on this reporter's brief interaction with it) impressive material that is completely sugar-free.
Biotrem is, in comparison to the Instagram-ready sheen of Loliware, more strictly functional. Based in Poland, Biotrem makes bowls and plates out of heated, compressed wheat bran. The process was invented by Jerzy Wysocki, a wheat farmer and miller, who invented the material when searching for a use for the byproducts of his milling process.
The edible tableware space is still in its infancy. That will mean, for now, prices and products that may be (ahem) hard to swallow.
The plates and bowls are far sturdier-feeling than most paper plates, with the heft of heavy-duty cardboard. There are no flavors and no culinary pairings. They taste (and I mean this in a good way) like a very stale, dense Weetabix, which is, remember, almost exactly what they are. But they held up through seconds of a piping hot meal, with the plate only collapsing when I put it through the ringer and tried to wash it.
The utensils that come with the bowls and plates are less impressive. They are PLA plastic, or bioplastic, derived from non-petroleum, plant based sources, and come flecked with wheat bran, as a nod to their origins. They fall short of the plates and bowls, not only in functionality — when faced with hot fried rice, the tines curled up and in, like talons— but sustainability. Bioplastic is not nearly as virtuous as its plant-based origins suggest; PLA technically biodegrades, but very, very slowly and it is only compostable in relatively scarce industrial composting facilities.
The edible tableware space is still in its infancy. That will mean, for now, prices and products that may be (ahem) hard to swallow. And the real power of these organically-based wares won't be truly felt until composting is more widespread. But for those with an eye on our ever growing plastic waste problem, cups and bowls that are, to use Loliware's term, "designed to disappear" have tantalizing potential.
Check out Loliware and Biotrem's sites to see if you can order up some of their wares in time for Labor Day. If that's not an option, have your guests use non-disposable plates, cups and silverware. And lastly, ask your city how you can get composting in your neighborhood or apartment building.