Can edible packaging create a cleaner environment?

Konstantin Sheiko
February 9, 2018

The world is producing too much waste, and a fair chunk of it comes from food related produce, such as scrapes, peels and packaging. Now imagine, for a moment, how much cleaner our environment would become if we consumed the plastic packaging, cups and bottles, or lets say, the banana peels together with the ‘good’ bits?

The fruit has already been taste tested by many enthusiasts, and people have reported some of their findings. It indeed does have very thin skin, and a strong tropical flavor similar to that of a pineapple. It’s also very sweet, with about 24.8 grams of sugar, as opposed to the average 18.3 grams in a regular banana. However, they have also remarked that although the skin is certainly edible, it is not particularly flavorful. If you’d like to do a taste test for yourself, however, prepare to book a flight to Japan. The Mongee bananas are only found at the Fruit Corner of Tenmanya Okayama, a department store in western Japan, and they have limited supplies. They also come at $5.75 each, which pretty pricy for a banana. The good news is that the industry is finally coming up with some viable solutions to the waste and pollution crises that have engulfed the planet. Concerning the taste and price issues we can be sure that both will improve as it usually happens with the new products.

Edible banana skins is not the only positive invention in that field. For example, a new, clear, edible food covering, made of casein from cow’s milk mixed with citrus pectin from fruit, and that is capable of blocking oxygen and slowing spoilage more effectively than conventional plastic wrappings has been unveiled by a US Department of Agriculture research team led by Peggy Tomasula at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia. Tomasula and her team started by just using casein protein to form the plastic, but found it was too difficult to handle. Besides, it was easily degraded by water. Citrus pectin, a type of polysaccharide extracted from citrus fruits, was added to strengthen it. They ended up with a plastic with smaller pores, so allowed less oxygen in than conventional plastics, making it a more effective preserver. After a few modifications, the plastic looked similar to regular plastic but was less stretchy, a better oxygen blocker and completely edible.  

The plan, now, is to apply this technology not just to new wrappings but coatings for food like cereal to keep its crunch instead of the sugar used today. “The coatings applications for this product are endless,” says Laetitia Bonnaillie, who was involved with the work. “We are currently testing applications such as single-serve, edible food wrappers. For instance, individually wrapped cheese sticks use a large proportion of plastic - we would like to fix that”. Future plans also include the addition of vitamins, probiotics and dietary boosters which could eventually be incorporated into the plastic. Flavours could also be added.  

In addition, seaweed absorbs a great deal of the carbon dioxide in the sea, making it a great crop to grow. Not only is the startup focused on eco-friendliness, the increase in demand will help seaweed farmers raise more revenue. The company also makes edible cups. And it is logical to move from edible cups toward creating edible plastic bottles. So far, an ‘edible water bottle’ project has raised over £500,000 in a crowdfunding campaign. The inventors hope that this product will replace the millions of plastic bottles thrown away every year. 

The water ball, named "Ooho!" is a biodegradable and natural membrane which can be fully swallowed and digested, as well as hydrating people in the same way as drinking water. The product is made from a seaweed extract and is tasteless, although flavours can be added to it. Skipping Rocks Lab, the company behind it, was founded by three London-based design students, and aims to make a series of sustainable projects of which Ooho! is the first. It plans to trial the use of the balls, and introduce them at major events such as marathons and music festivals. Skipping Rocks Lab says the material is cheaper than producing a plastic water bottle.  

To create the balls, a block of ice is dipped in a solution of calcium chloride and brown algae, and the membrane forms around it. A layer can be peeled off to keep the exterior clean for consumption.A campaign on crowdfunding site CrowdCube has raised £582,000, with investments spiking since images of the Ooho! balls went viral. More than 500 people have invested in the project.  

Millions of plastic bottles are thrown away worldwide every year. In the UK, the ministers at one point considered a plastic bottle charge to clamp down on the numbers being thrown away, filling up landfills and entering the sea. Kenya has completely banned the use of plastic bags. Obviously, an environmentally sustainable alternative is preferable to sending your waste to a 1,000 year landfill. However, the new plastic has one major drawback - it still needs a cardboard box or plastic protective bag of sorts to keep it sanitary and dry, so the researchers work on finding a solution to this problem.