Jul 27, 2022 - Economy

The next eco-friendly trend: Edible cups, spoons and straws

Illustration of a wooden fork with a bite out of it.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

In an innovative pushback against paper and plastic waste, eco-companies are starting to pump out cups, spoons and straws that you can eat after you use them — no need to recycle.

Why it matters: While the "edible" angle is a bit of a cheeky marketing hook, there's a serious trend here: A campaign to replace items considered biodegradable or recyclable with ones that are "home compostable" — toss them in your backyard pile, and they'll break down quickly and naturally.

  • Even paper straws — which many people view as virtuous — can't be recycled if you've used them for anything but water and haven't rinsed them.
  • "We're trying to revolutionize the way we eat our food by replacing single-use plastic with edible cutlery," says the founder of Incredible Eats, Dinesh Tadepalli, whose company makes spoons and sporks in flavors like chocolate and oregano chili. (His favorite: a vanilla spoon with butter pecan ice cream.)

The details: New edible products, made from ingredients like rice and sugar, include strawberry-flavored drinking straws for your smoothie (or margarita), oat-and-grain coffee cups (in regular or chocolate), and black pepper-flavored spoons that pair well with soup or mac and cheese.

Driving the news: Edible utensils and tableware are starting to crop up at major retail, dining and entertainment chains — which are using or selling them not only as a novelty, but to boost their green credibility.

  • Disney, Busch Gardens, Carnival cruises and Tropical Smoothie Cafes offer Sorbos edible straws — which come in eight flavors (including ginger, chocolate and cinnamon) but don't flavor your drink unless you bite them.
  • T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods are selling Incredible Eats spoons, made from a mix of wheat, oats, corn, chickpeas and brown rice.
  • Lavazza coffee is being served in edible cups from Cupffee, which boasts that its vegan coffee cups stay crunchy and crispy for up to 40 minutes — and are only 56 calories.

"You will soon see our straws in thousands and thousands of fast-food restaurants in the U.S.," Ove Fondberg, a co-0wner of Sorbos, tells Axios.

  • The straws "taste amazing," he says. "When you bite it, it cracks. You only get the taste when you bite it."
  • Incredible Eats' savory spoons and sporks taste "like a crouton or a cracker," while the vanilla options resemble a waffle cone or fortune cookie, says Tadepalli, who adds that the company revised its formulation three times to improve the taste.

Finish your vegetables ... and your plate: A company called Biotrem makes a remarkably complete line of plates, bowls and cutlery from wheat bran.

  • An oval serving bowl is microwave-safe, contains no artificial ingredients, and can be used for hot or cold foods.
  • But if food sits in it too long, "the smell of bran may slightly penetrate the meal," the company warns.

The big picture: While companies and governments have been banning or phasing out single-use plastics, many alternatives aren't much better for the environment — and most consumers don't understand the differences.

  • Even biodegradable products can take a long time to decompose, and most recyclables aren't actually recycled.
  • The brass ring: "home compostable" items, which don't require the high temperatures or professionally managed conditions of an industrial or commercial composting facility.
  • "My intention is not for people to use this instead of a stainless steel spoon," says Tadepalli.
    • Rather, he'd like his zero-impact edible spoons to replace single-use plastic and paper utensils that are typically used at parties, picnics and fast-food restaurants.

Yes, but: Edible straws, cups and utensils are a lot more expensive than conventional ones — which means restaurants either have to charge for them or build them into their prices.

  • Edibles tend to dissolve (or get mushy or weird) after too much contact with food or drink.
  • The forks and knives don't cut or stab too well, reviewers say.
  • Some taste better than others.

"I'm not gonna say that they taste good," says Marina Tran-Vu, founder and CEO of Equo, which makes rice-and-tapioca-starch drinking straws. "But it's just like as if you were to eat pasta — that's kind of like the texture."

The bottom line: It's not an easy business to get right. Several startups have already gone bust because it's tricky to manufacture edible straws, cups and utensils at scale and get retailers to pay extra for them.

  • But some companies are figuring it out, and there's consumer interest in the sustainability angle and "fun" factor — meaning we're likely to see a lot more of these products going forward.
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