When Barbara Wheaton, culinary historian and honorary curator at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, told Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers that she longed for durable dishes that didn’t need to be washed and could be thrown away after a meal, she was surprised when they took her seriously.

MIT Media Lab’s Counter Intelligence Group, which develops innovative kitchen designs, has created a machine that makes dishes on demand and recycles them after diners have finished a meal. The dishes are made from food-grade, nontoxic acrylic wafers, which are shaped into cups, bowls and plates when heated, then resume their original wafer shape when they are reheated and pressed.

Designed by MIT grad student Leonardo Bonanni, the DishMaker frees space in dish cabinets and reduces landfill trash. It also uses less energy to recycle dishes than factories use to make them. And, because the machine can produce up to 150 items, a dinner host would never be short of table settings when unexpected guests arrive: Cooks can select the number of place settings needed using a simple push-button control panel. The prototype DishMaker is the size of a standard dishwasher, and uses the heating element of a toaster oven to shape the items. To recycle the dishes, it heats them to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit to soften the acrylic, then a press restores them to wafers for easy stacking.

The machine holds 150 acrylic wafers and can produce a dish every 90 seconds. The wafers produce plates that are only 6 inches in diameter, the size of an average salad or dessert plate, but the machine can be adapted to use larger wafers.

Bonanni says the DishMaker would be useful in restaurants, hospitals and other institutions that use a lot of dishes.

The process has a couple of glitches, though. The cups require less material than plates, but instead of cutting away the leftover acrylic, the machine currently forms it into a large, flat lip on top of the cup that makes drinking difficult.

The other problem concerns cleaning the dishes. The heating process gets rid of some food and sterilizes the dishes, but doesn’t solve the problem of food grease, which tends to settle into the plastic.

“We can obviously just stick a dishwasher on the machine, but we’re still investigating ways that would wash dishes without water,” Bonanni says. “That would be a real breakthrough for us.”

One big advantage the DishMaker offers is the production energy it saves.

By Kim Zetter

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