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Turning Fallen Leaves into Dinner Plates

The paper plate was invented in 1904, and Americans now throw away an estimated trillion disposable plates and utensils per year

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Leaf plates. Images courtesy of VerTerra

The first single-use food service item was the paper plate, invented in 1904. Paper cups followed soon after. Over the next century, disposable cups, utensils and plates were developed in increasingly durable—and environmentally unfriendly—materials. The low point, as far as the planet’s health is concerned, was probably the original Styrofoam cup. It was durable, lightweight and kept people from burning their hands while holding a hot cup of coffee, but it was also made using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which break down ozone in the atmosphere. CFCs were phased out in the late 1980s, but that didn’t eliminate the problem of polystyrene, like other plastics, hanging around landfills for centuries after being used just once.

According to Time magazine, Americans throw away an estimated trillion disposable plates and utensils per year. The best option, of course, would be if everyone stopped using disposable products altogether. That’s probably never going to happen—it’s just too convenient to be able to grab a cup of coffee on your way to work. But some ingenious new products have come out in recent years that might be able to reduce the damage, including disposable cups and utensils made from a material derived from corn. They look just like plastic, but can be composted by a commercial composter so they don’t end up in landfills. Even more interesting—not to mention seasonally appropriate—is a line of plates made from fallen leaves, which can be naturally home-composted after use.

In the natural order of things, leaves fall from trees and eventually disintegrate, their nutrients enriching the soil to help the next generation of leaves and other plants grow. If those leaves happen to be in someone’s yard or a public place, they are usually picked up. Gardeners and other environmentally conscious people will add the leaves to a compost pile to become a natural fertilizer. But more often than not, the fallen leaves are incinerated or taken to the dump, where they will still disintegrate over time, but the plastic bags that were used to collect them will stick around for a good, long while.

VerTerra, a company founded in 2007, just adds another step to the leaves’ natural life cycle: dinner. The idea for plates made from fallen leaves came to VerTerra founder and CEO, Michael Dwork, when he was traveling in rural India. He saw a woman soaking palm leaves and then pressing them in a kind of waffle iron. She then served food on the pressed leaves. When he returned to the United States and business school, he experimented with adapting this simple and resourceful concept to make a line of attractive, durable and environmentally friendly single-use plates and bowls. (Not as cheap as paper or plastic, though; they can cost up to about a dollar per piece.) After they’re used, they can be thrown in the compost pile, where they will naturally compost within two months. The company website even includes a tutorial on composting at home, whether you live in the country or in a tiny apartment.

According to the company, the plates are made from leaves in India because no American leaves would produce the right effect. Only fallen leaves are used; steam, heat and pressure are applied to form the plates. Since nothing but leaves and water are added, they’re nontoxic and can be safely added to the compost pile.

That means the plate you eat your food on can help grow your next meal. Pretty cool.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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