Edible Packaging for Food: Genius or Crazy? 

What's to come?
Oct. 9 2012 7:33 AM

Are You Going To Eat That Wrapper?

Edible packaging could cut down on food-related waste. But will people try it?

Cheese packs by WikiCells.
Cheese packs by WikiCells

Courtesy WikiCells.

Is there a lesson in the nude bananas incident?

Last month, a German-owned “common sense” supermarket chain, Billa, posted a picture of some bananas on its Facebook page. Harmless, right? Except for some reason, the bananas were peeled then packaged in Styrofoam trays wrapped with cellophane. It wasn’t the best PR move for a supposedly “environmentally conscious” company.

The images spread around the Web rapidly. Billa’s Facebook page was so overrun with angry comments that it was temporarily taken down. A spokesman for Greenpeace called what Billa did with the bananas “just madness.” Quickly enough, the company had apologized for its “one off” error.

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The reaction to the photo was probably over the top—“Pre-Peeled Bananas Incur the Wrath of Humanity,” Time’s NewsFeed blog declared, tongue in cheek. But the incident highlights a serious issue: In 2010, more than 75 million tons of packaging waste hit landfills in the United States alone, and less than half of that was recovered through recycling, according to the latest available data. And we can’t blame prunes encased in two layers of packaging, shrink-wrapped corn, or even individually wrapped jelly beans for all of that rubbish.

But even if you’re not willing to bring your own containers on food-shopping excursions—as patrons at a new packaging-free grocery store in Austin, Texas, are expected to do—there may be a new solution. Two startup companies want to wrap your food not in plastic that will linger in landfills but in materials that you can eat.

Taking a page from biomimicry—drawing inspiration from nature, as Velcro’s inventor did from burrs—Harvard professor David Edwards and designer François Azambourg have invented WikiCells, which encase various foods and liquids in edible membranes that function like the skin of a grape. WikiCells can hold gazpacho soup, hot chocolate, ice cream, yogurt—almost anything. The membrane itself is made of food particles—say, cheese or dried fruit—and held together by calcium or magnesium ions and alginate. Edwards has even made a grape-flavored pouch filled with wine.

While this solution may dispense with the wasteful primary packaging that actually touches the food, you still need a box or wrapper. So Edwards and his team also developed a number of secondary shells made of caramel, isomalt (rock candy), tapioca, or bagasse, which is what you have left if you take the sugar out of sugar cane. When the casing is made of caramel or isomalt, it’s edible, although that’s not practical for mass distribution for many products—who wants to eat the layer that everyone else in the grocery store fondled, anyway? The bagasse and tapioca versions aren’t edible, but they are compostable. Some companies already use bagasse to make things like food trays. Usually, it’s coated to make it oil- and water-resistant. But because WikiCells’ skin keeps water out (and in) that’s not necessary—you can simply compost the “shell” and wash the WikiCells inside as you would apples or peaches—making the total product more environmentally friendly.  So when you buy ice cream bars at the grocery store, each would be wrapped not in plastic but in a WikiCell membrane, flavored, for example, like chocolate chip cookie dough, and the bagasse “shell” or box would hold five or six. 

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