Graduate student utilizes flora to create compostable flatware

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A design graduate student hopes people will use a more natural alternative to environmentally harmful plates and containers. Amrita Adhikary designed a system to make compostable dinnerware out of fallen areca nut palm leaves, which are native to India. She said she wanted to create a solution to the waste from the culture of high consumption. “We do need a disposable option because of our lifestyle; we are always on the go,” Adhikary said. “We need to take food when we travel or pick up food at fast food restaurants.” She said Styrofoam and plastic containers are environmentally hazardous because they don’t degrade or decompose. The waste from these products occupy massive amounts of space and can potentially harm ground water, she said. “Using leaves [to make plates] ensures that the plate is a totally environmentally-friendly product from the start to the finish,” Adhikary said. Although there are more biodegradable products on the market now, people are not consistently composting them, Adhikary said. She said biodegradable and compostable items that get thrown in the trash will not benefit the environment because they need air and moisture to decompose. They end up being like any other piece of plastic, she said. Associate design professor Gloria Lee, Adhikary’s adviser, said her design is remarkable because she did not just design dinnerware. “It’s a design project that looks at an entire system,” Lee said. “It’s not just a compostable set of dinnerware but continues through its life cycle and beyond.” Adhikary said the plates work best in an institution like a cafeteria. She said when the plates are done being used, they would be disposed in a certain bin and then picked up to be composted. She said an internship in India got her interested in the kind of social entrepreneurship where “people profit as well as the planet.” Adhikary has made between 1,500 and 2,000 plates for a test pilot in Austin that will begin after she graduates in May. Director of Sustainability Jim Walker said UT has many innovative ways it is being sustainable in its cafeterias. He said Jester and Kinsolving have gone trayless and use reusable silverware. He said they also made a reusable shell available to purchase to use instead of plates. “The main kind of composting we have in UT are in Jester and Kinsolving cafeterias,” Walker said. “All the food scraps are put into a compactor and hauled out in southeastern Travis County, where they are composted.”