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Forget Recycling: Here Comes Edible Packaging

| Friday February 24th, 2012 | 4 Comments

ban-startup-friday

Food packaging, especially single serving, is a major contributor to landfill waste. About 76 tons in the US annually. Frequently difficult to recycle, and otherwise not top of mind for people to think of as recyclable, it has seemed like a necessary evil, as people aren’t about to stop consuming such products.

We are on the cusp of that figure being radically reduced.

Monosol and WikiCells are two contenders in the soon-to-emerge edible packaging market. Monosol is closer to market, as it’s already being used in detergent, pesticide and clothing applications, and has begun talks with food companies. However, its method of dispersal is getting wet, which precludes it being used in liquid applications, a sector where much of food packaging waste originates from. WikiCells has no such problem.

Monosol’s materials are biodegradable, but there may be a psychological barrier to overcome, as the example shared in Fast Company shows:

You drop a package of hot chocolate into water, and as the packaging opens the drink is made. Up float bits of plastic looking material that then melt into nothing, becoming part of the drink. For some, this will be a novel, fun experience they’ll relish. For many, it may prove disconcerting.

As branding experts suggested in the article, some paths around this might be invoking nature, the familiar in how the packaging looks, or perhaps adding nutritional aspects will help make Monosol be easier to swallow.

WikiCells creator Professor David Edwards

WikiCells seems to be ahead on this count, as their test products normalize the product, making the mental leap shorter. First examples include a tomato membrane containing gazpacho soup that can be poured over bread, an orange membrane filled with orange juice that you can drink with a straw, smaller grape-like membrane holding wine, and a chocolate membrane containing hot chocolate.

So just what are WikiCells? As they put it,

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.

One basic concern that a Twitter follower of mine brought up that WikiCells and Monosol must be sure to address, both in execution and in marketing: Will you be eating packaging that a lot of others have touched? Though unlikely, it’s important to reassure potential consumers that eating its product is safe.

Despite potential hurdles, real or imagined, this is definitely a space to explore, as we cannot continue on the current path, accumulating further waste. Recyclable and upcycleable packaging are certainly a better way, but with edible packaging, you’ll be cutting out energy use to collect, transport, and store or recycle it. Cumulatively, a huge shift.

Readers: Would you eat edible packaging? If not, what would you need to feel comfortable doing so? What other companies are working on edible packaging?

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Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, global trend tracker, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.

Image credit: Rachel L Weiss


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  • http://www.batshite.com Scott Bartlett

    Having worked at a grocery store for three years, I would have serious reservations about eating packaging. I know the kind of things that packaging is routinely subjected to–i.e. sitting around in warehouses for months, handled by numerous employees and customers, sitting on dustry shelves for weeks, tossed in a dirty cart, etc.

  • Nicholas Palmer

    I think the potential “yuck factor” might put a lot off! These products fit best with the long distance multiple agents methods of food retailing which are exactly the methods that would generate more handling, more yuck…

  • Thebetsy44

    People live and breath and cough,at food stores and yes, even farmers markets. And still we live on. Suck it up and swallow it. “yuck” isn’t even a factor. People even buy ‘naked’ bread and have mess bags for groceriesm and produce in other countries. Put on your big boy pants

  • Phill

    Like I said in a past post “It is not about the package being edible” it’s the fact that it is safe to actually eat that bag your crisps were in, or throw it away and it’ll be safe on the environment more than a plastic package or the likes. There’s a yuk factor to this being if packaging of this kind is in an environment where flies sit and pooh and puke or unwashed hands have touched.. don’t eat it then.. but throwing it will have zero impact on the environment, even if you’ve thrown it on the sidewalk.