One of the fun things about eating ice cream cones in the summer is munching down the cone itself. (The brown sugar cones were always my favorite).
Harvard professor David Edwards wants to extend that idea to other foods. He's invented a product called WikiCells, an edible packaging that mimics many of the properties of plastic without the environmental problems.
Most foods come in plastic packaging that is not only inedible, but ends up in landfills and the oceans. Most plastics never biodegrade; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. The results can be pretty devastating to sea animals and and other wildlife that eat the plastic, can't digest it and die of starvation when it accumulates in their stomachs.
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The edible packaging is made of a sugar processing by-product called bagasse, mixed with chitosan and alginate. Bagasse is what is left over once sugar cane is crushed for the juice. Chitosan is made from the shells of shrimp (it's used in agriculture and even winemaking). Alginate is derived from algae. All three compounds are bound with electrostatic charges and turned into an edible shell membrane. The shell can also be made into a compostable, quickly biodegradable covering that, if you don't want to eat, will break down very fast in the environment the way fruit peelings do.
Edwards unveiled WikiCells bottles in February at Harvard's Wyss Institute, and made appearances in Paris last week showing some of the ways food might be packaged. One of his ideas was ice cream inside a chocolate membrane.
One thing that makes these shells easy to commercialize is that the technology isn't new – the ingredients are all well known and have been manufactured for a century or more. The down side is that this packaging would have a sell by date, just like the food in it. People might also resist eating the packaging of their food this way – eating a water bottle is a bit of an alien idea. But the fact that the package is biodegradable makes a big difference, and at the very least might mean the great garbage patches in the ocean won't get any larger.