Millions of plastic bottles are thrown away every year. Many end up polluting the ocean or buried under the earth. With concern about plastics growing it is time to think seriously about innovating with packaging. How can we make our packaging environmentally friendly, disposable and fit for the packaging purpose? Let's consider some solutions from the food industry and one creative idea in particular - edible packaging.
Nature gives us some fine examples. Coconuts and bananas come in packaging which is strong and recyclable but not edible. However, apples, pears, potatoes and tomatoes all have edible skins and even the tougher outer layers of oranges and lemons can be baked in cakes.
One of the first and most successful examples of man-made edible packaging is the common ice cream cone. Edible cones were patented by two separate Italian entrepreneurs in 1902 and 1903. They were Antonio Valvona, an ice cream merchant from Manchester, UK and Italo Marchiony, an ice cream salesman from New York. The key idea was to roll a waffle into a cone. This novel way of delivering ice cream proved a huge success at the 1904 World Fair in St Louis. Nowadays we just take for granted an innovation which allows us to eat an ice cream and then eat its delivery package.
A start-up company called Skipping Rocks Lab, based at Imperial College, London, has announced an 'edible water bottle' named 'Ooho'. This squidgy spherical container is made from seaweed extract and can be swallowed and digested. It is tasteless but flavours can be added to it. This innovative venture has raised over $700,000 in a crowdfunding campaign. The company has won numerous innovation and environmental design awards.
Nigel Gifford is an aeronautical engineer from Somerset, England who has a background in army catering. He has designed a drone that delivers aid to disaster areas which are difficult to reach. The drone itself is edible.
The Pouncer drone is three metres wide and is designed to deliver emergency foods and medical supplies. "We wanted to make something that is the ultimate usable package delivery system for aid and disaster scenarios that could go where traditional methods can't due to damaged infrastructure, and solves multiple issues that have previously cost lives," said Gifford. As regards the edible hull he said, 'As long as it is strong enough to make one flight, you increase the food you are delivering. It doesn't even matter if it breaks up when it lands. It is planned that the largest drone can feed 100 people for a day and can be delivered with an accuracy of within 10 metres of its target.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced a prototype edible plastic film. It is made from the milk protein casein and the film could contain flavours or nutrients. A patent is pending but several commercial firms have expressed an interest in developing the product.
There are issues with edible packaging including cost, hygiene and moisture resistance. Perhaps the biggest obstacle will be changing consumer habits. However, it is generally agreed that current plastic containers are just too harmful to the environment. When we order an ice cream we expect it to be delivered in a cone. Perhaps we should demand that the big food suppliers learn a lesson from the humble ice cream cone and innovate with their packaging.