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Edible tableware, such as plates made of shrimp crackers and cups made of seaweed, is catching on as a safer substitute for disposable tableware by reducing the amount of polystyrene and plastic waste thrown out each day.

For example, the e-tray series by Marushige Seika K.K., which makes the crust for ice cream-filled “monaka” wafers, consists of edible serving plates and bowls made of shrimp crackers. In addition to being sought by food vendors at baseball stadiums and local festivals, the company based in Hekinan, Aichi Prefecture, has also been receiving inquiries from overseas.

The plates and bowls come in a variety of oval or rectangular shapes and are tougher than they look.

“You can pour in water and they will still hold up for 30 minutes,” said Katsuhiko Sakakibara, a senior managing director at Marushige. “The plates have even been used for serving parfait.”

Marushige developed the edible tableware about four years ago. Since ordinary monaka crust, made mainly of wheat, performs relatively poorly when wet, the company turned to shrimp crackers — a local specialty — for hints on how to improve its durability.

The company decided to mix raw shrimp into a starch batter and bake it under high pressure into 5-mm-thick plates. The e-tray products even include plates flavored to taste like sweet potato or onion, for example.

The company hopes the product will reduce the enormous amounts of trash generated from disposable plastic and polystyrene utensils.

“We would like to promote our plates and bowls as environmentally friendly,” Sakakibara said.

Small cups made of edible seaweed by Yokohama-based food packaging maker Honest are also hot sellers. The cups — about 2 cm deep and 4 cm in diameter at the base — are especially popular among mothers with young children as they can be put to various uses when making bento (boxed lunches) or hosting parties.

For example, putting rice in a seaweed cup can substitute for “onigiri” (rice balls), while stuffing and deep-frying them can turn them into “kakiage,” a type of tempura.

Initially, the cups were intended for sale to the restaurant industry. In response to high consumer interest, however, an online shop for them opened in 2007. They have since gained a following thanks to the addition of new flavors and resealable packaging that prevents humidity from softening the seaweed.

“We have heard from customers who have children with small appetites that they could get them to eat by putting rice in these cups,” said Honest President Masaaki Miyata.

Miyata said the company only uses Japanese seaweed and is seeing more orders from overseas, including the United States.

Research on producing edible tableware with 3-D printers is also underway. Keio University in Tokyo is involved in a project to make eating utensils like chopsticks, spoons and cups with rice flour, and has built an experimental 3-D printer for that purpose.

“We are aiming to make tableware and toys that are safe for children to put into their mouths,” said Hiroya Tanaka, an associate professor at Keio’s faculty of environment and information studies. “We are also looking to have the products used in care centers and nursing homes.”

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