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.
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.”
Her team at Northeastern decided to start with sugarcane bagasse, or the pulp byproduct of sugarcane extraction. In 2021, Brazil alone is expected to produce 39.5 million tons of sugar from its sugarcane harvest, and for every 10 tons of sugarcane crushed during extraction, there’s about three tons of pulp produced. This makes it cheap and eco-friendly, since it’s already waste, Zhu says. “The problem is sugar fiber is short, so from a mechanical stance, waste from sugar cane is not so strong,” she says. “We made a hybrid, mixing the shorter fibers with long bamboo fiber . . . [to] enhance the mechanical strength.” The pulp from the two fibers are then molded into plates, bowls, and containers.