When Hongli Zhu, an assistant professor at Northeastern University and co-author of a paper that lays out the new material in the journal Matter, first came to the U.S. in 2007, she says she was surprised at the amount of single-use containers in stores, at restaurants, and in the trash cans at her seminars. “If you [look] at the whole population, I can’t imagine how much plastic waste this kind of onetime use food container waste we generate on Earth,” she says. “People try to use materials created by humans, but I think we should look to nature. Nature has so much to offer.”
Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston say they have developed sustainable, nontoxic tableware using a sugar by-product that can be molded into food and beverage containers.
Specifically, the material must be clean enough to safely handle food. It must also have good “wet mechanical strength” — the ability to hold liquids for a lengthy period of time. Plastic has both qualities in abundance, which is why it has been utilized for decades. But more people are becoming aware that the legacy of plastic production outlives the substance’s usefulness.
Single-use tableware like cups, plates, and to-go containers are a huge source of waste. Even if they’re deemed compostable, they might still end up in a landfill, where they won’t break down without the specific conditions found in composting facilities. And eco-friendly food containers are often more expensive than plastic, and that upfront cost can be a barrier to adoption for both consumers and restaurants. Now, scientists say they’ve found a solution: tableware that can break down naturally in 60 days and is more affordable than compostable plastic because it’s made out of sugarcane waste and bamboo.