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Bento Boxes: The Case for Wooden Take-Out Containers

Let’s talk about take-out food containers. Currently, most take-out food containers are made of plastic. They end up in landfills and pollute our oceans but do not get me wrong. Plastics are amazing. It is an amazing material considering its light-weight, malleability and durability. Yes, durability. The material can last decades if not hundreds of years. Literally. And this is where the problem really lies. In Japan we have a saying “Teki-zai, Teki-sho,” which roughly translates to “the right man for the job” or “the right thing for the right occasion.” The problem with plastics is that we as consumers are abusing the availability of the material. When we use a take-out container or disposable cutlery, the intended life-cycle is about as long as the meal, which assuming even if we love to have our left-over overnight pizzas, would be a day or two at best. Plastics on the other hand lasts forever. Longer than your meal, longer than your fridge, longer than our lifetimes.

So, do we give up our habits of take-out meals and shun the next person with a take-out container? Well, we don’t have to. To begin, we would need to dive into our history books and learn about where it all began. What we call plastics today or rather synthetic polymer derived from fossil fuels were mostly discovered and patented by DuPont in the 1930s. They were widely used as a replacement for rubber in military equipment and weaponry during World War II (not to confuse with other natural occurring polymers or biodegradable plastics derived from natural materials). When World War II ended in 1945, DuPont began looking for alternative applications of the material with the existing production capacity. Subsidized by the war, proliferated by the economic and consumerism growth that followed, plastics exploded everywhere. You see them in furniture, toys, clothing, literally everywhere. That nostalgic 60s, 70, 80s imagery would not be complete without plastic goods. Little then did the producers or consumers know what these miracle materials would do to the earth today in as little as less than 80 years.

Jump back to the modern day, we as consumers are spoilt with the ever-growing choices of foods to eat in our busy day-to-day lives; as we look to take-out meals for a quick bite or perhaps a sandwich or bento on the go. Where did we pick-up this horrendous habit destroying the earth? Did we as consumers start developing these vile habits of take-outs after the invention of plastics? This one is easier to answer. We as human beings have always taken our food from one location to another from the stone age. Whether that is to consume food in the safety of our home from predators or to preserve them for a rainy day, we may have dragged a deer from the savannah or picked berries from bushes to bring back to the cave. Take-outs have always existed for as long as human beings have been around. It as a natural to us as our basic instincts of survival.

As human civilizations evolve and grow, how do we reconcile our primal need to move our food and at the same time not suffocate our planet with these forever lasting plastics? We can look to a time before plastics were invented for the answer. One example in recent history is the bento in Japan. Bento boxes existed in Japan from the Heian period (approx. 800AD) and were the primary means of carrying dried cooked rice meals. Samurai from the warring times of the Sengoku period would bring them as rations into war. And perhaps as early as the Edo period, the word “bento” was known to the outside world, the term even included in the Portuguese-Japanese dictionary “Vocabulário da Língua do Japão” dated in the 1600s. Bento boxes in those times can be as simple as wrapped in bamboo leaves to those made of wood and can be made as lacquerware for events like picnics or hanami. There are a quite few things we can take as inspiration for bentos have been around for at least a thousand years.

What became of all these wooden bento boxes with its culture and history through the ages? Well, plastics came along and wiped them all out. Despite plastic’s abundance in our everyday lives, disposable plastic take-out containers is a relatively new phenomenon. Natural materials in packaging of take-outs on the other hand have always pre-existed plastics, and with the wit and the will of our necessity to carry our food, natural materials in packaging may make a comeback in our lives.

One natural packaging solution can be the “Oribako”. Oribako, which literally translates to folded (wooden) box are wooden food containers used in Japan from as early as the 6th century. They were widely used by nobility as luxury “disposable” tableware until lacquered reusable versions were introduced in the Meiji period (1800s). Following its popularity as meals during theatrical performances of Kabuki or Nōh in the Edo period (1600-1800s), Oribako in its conventional consumer-friendly disposable take-out form spread in the 20th century as railway meals, otherwise known as Ekiben. As a result, oribako “shops” or manufacturers popped up all over the island nation before World War II. It is estimated that oribako shops numbered to almost a thousand at it’s prime. Today, that number is less than a hundred. As cheaper and durable plastic alternatives replaced the traditional ware, many of these shops went out of business. The remaining reinvented themselves as plastic food packaging businesses and grew to be the profitable plastic food packaging companies we see today. You can see the relics of the oribako industry in the names of many of the plastic food packaging companies starting with the name “Ori” in Japan. Plastics as a material essentially changed the course of history for wood packaging and transformed a whole industry from wood manufacturing to plastics molding.

Where are we now as a civilization of evolved primates with the intellect to invent this miracle material. Well, we are drowning. We are drowning in the ever-growing sea of plastic waste in both our landfills and oceans. Plastics are everywhere around us. It is around us, it is in us, it is literally everywhere on this planet. From the deepest oceans to the highest mountains, nothing has quite conquered this planet as this synthetic material invented in the 1930s. As of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year. Accumulatively, 6.3 billion tons of plastics would have been produced since its introduction in the 1950s to 2018. Only 20% of that accumulated total is recycled or incinerated meaning there is over 5 billion tons of plastic garbage lying around in landfills or floating in the ocean on this planet. That is a whole lot of plastic waste and it is increasing every single day.

One common argument concerning plastic waste I often hear is that we have no alternatives. The environmental alternatives or solutions are too expensive to implement is often mentioned. In this regard, plastics have the upper hand with economies of scale in their favor. Huge production capacities from sourcing plastic pellet materials, final production molding processes, to logistics strongly contribute to the cheap price and availability of the material. But plastics do not bear the environmental cost of the waste they create. As regulation and policy help guide the industry towards a sustainable future, alternative solutions including wooden take-out containers may start playing an active role. In fact, wooden food take-out containers in Japan are already priced competitively to plastics. And if we as consumers can make the right choices in not only what we eat but also the packaging it comes in, we may have a chance to move towards a more friendly and environmentally-sustainable future.

You may be worried about the trees that wooden food containers are made from and sure enough, the timber and logging industry has its challenges. Raw materials sourced from the logging industry requires government policy and regulation to ensure sustainability and environmental protection. The wood used in most bento boxes produced today are sourced from regulated commercial plantations where trees are cultivated in rotations of years when they reach full-width for their intended use. I am not saying that wooden food containers will single-handedly save the world from plastic waste. But it can be one of the answers.

Wood is renewable and biodegradable. It can be a natural material for your takeout food container. It will not last a lifetime and it may only last your take-out meal but at least compared to plastics, it may be the better man for the job.

By Katsufumi Wang (originally published on June 25, 2019)