Here at Inhabitat we’ve been hoping for, and advocating, biodegradable packaging for years, but now designer entrepreneurs are thinking even bigger; how about packaging one could actually consume? Turning what was a waste product into something that could actually confer nutrition (and would degrade quickly if uneaten), could make litter a thing of the past. Several companies have been working on edible packaging over the last couple of years, and as the idea moves closer to reality, Time magazine even called it a ‘game changer’ for 2012. Read on for a look at the state of the art in edible packaging!
Litter drives me nuts. It’s hard not to pick it up, especially if I’m on a hike, or walking a beach (litter seems particularly offensive to me in natural areas); but I also find junk food wrappers, chip bags, plastic water bottles and cigarette cartons on the sidewalk outside my house sometimes, which is not only gross, it’s frustrating—no matter how many bits of trash I pick up, there’s always more where those came from.
According to Packaging Digest, two companies are seriously working on packages one can consume – one is Monosol, which is probably closer to market with a product application since they already manufacture water-soluble packaging for detergent and pesticides (and say they are working with dry foods for other applications). The other major player is Wikicell, which is a project of Harvard University’s Weiss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Wikicell‘s solution differs from Monosol’s in that it can hold wet food or beverage items, since it is made from a special ultra thin membrane technology, according to its creator, Professor David Edwards.
The idea is attractive to everyone from food manufacturers to personal consumers, who could have Wikicell Machines in their homes (edible packaging for your homemade Christmas cake anyone?). According to an abstract for a presentation on the idea:
WikiCells consist of a natural food membrane held together by electrostatic forces and containing a liquid, emulsion, foam, or solid food substance possibly within an edible or biodegradable shell. They can be produced by consumers with a WikiCell Machine in a practically inexhaustible variety of membranes and forms and with a wide range of food and drinks. WikiCells use special membrane technology that permits the fabrication of thin delicious membranes with significant water diffusional resistance and adjoined shells that allow for stability of the WikiCells over long periods of time.
What are the applications for such a material? According to the Guardian, “So far, Dr Edwards and his team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have created a tomato membrane containing gazpacho soup, an orange membrane filled with orange juice that can be sipped through a straw, a grape-like membrane holding wine and a chocolate membrane containing hot chocolate.”
Of course, more than a few people have pointed out some of the problems inherent to edible packaging; namely that the point of packaging is to keep germs and grime off food. If the packaging itself is handled by all sorts of people and subject to the dust and dirt of storage, nobody is going to want to ingest that. But what about all the packaging that’s inside other packaging? (Think gum wrappers, individual servings of chips and snacks that come inside a larger bag, cereal, which is usually packaged inside a box, or beverage containers that are often wrapped in a thin layer of plastic—the list goes on once you really start to think about it).
Edible packaging isn’t a brand-new idea. In the natural world, all sorts of fruit and produce come in their own protective (and once-washed) completely delicious wrapping. Potato skins are a delicacy unto themselves, and the exteriors of lemons are not only hydrophobic, but make for incredible, aromatic and flavorful additions to baked goods and all sorts of savory dishes. Human-made foods like sausages, Scotch eggs, savory pies, mochi (Japanese ice cream or candy that’s served in sweet, soft glutinous rice shell) are proof-positive that packages that could be transported and eaten later have endured for thousands of years and even become part of food culture.
More recently, chefs have even been experimenting with the idea; Heston Blumenthal is known for his ‘don’t bother unwrapping them’ caramels, with ‘wrappers’ made of glycerine, gelatin, and water that anyone can make at home. Beyond the novelty of this concept is the idea that we could genuinely reduce waste—and maybe even package food better. Perpeceuticals, based in the UK, just won a grant to develop edible, anti-microbial films for meat that would help them last longer on supermarket shelves (and in fridges at home), leading to less food waste.
Wasting less food, and creating less waste while we do it; definitely and idea worth pursuing (and worth working out the consumer challenges it may face).
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)