The recently-opened Original Unverpackt store in Berlin’s hip Kreuzberg district should look vaguely familiar to many. Desired quantities of rice, pasta and other dry goods, kept in overhead gravity bins, are dispensed with a simple push of a lever. Spices are scooped out from smaller bulk containers and weighed. The set-up isn’t unlike what you’d find in many candy shops, actually.
And while similar outlets also operate in Italy and Austria, the entrepreneurs behind Germany’s first packaging-free supermarket are touting this particular enterprise as something much more ambitious. Through a wide selection of more than 600 specialty products, the store hopes to be about as complete as any one-stop shop.
Toothpaste, for instance, can be purchased as single-use chewable tablets. And liquids, whether it be milk or shampoo, are dispensed from the tap. The unconventional approach is what enables every item – from produce to hygiene products – to go from supplier to consumer without generating a hint of landfill waste along the way.
Yet it’s what the store doesn’t sell that shows the extent in which plastic has become an integral part of our lives. There are no meats or cheese, which both require tightly sealed containment. And more notably, doing your grocery shopping there also means compromising staple conveniences like frozen pizza.
But rather than scratching off packaging altogether, a new wave of eco-conscious designers have started to experiment with the novel notion of putting food in packaging and containers that you can, well, eat. Some concepts have already shown to work surprisingly well, as you will now see.
1. Food wrapped in food
WikiCells made its mark last year by showing that edible packaging can be as safe, tasty and commercially viable.
Created by David Edwards, a Harvard professor, the gelatinous skin is comprised of actual bits of food, such as fruit, nuts and coconut flakes, along with small amounts of fibrous chitosan, algae extract and calcium ions. With the tensile strength to hold everything from coffee to ice cream, the protective layer shell is engineered to lock in moisture as well as prevent oxidization.
Edward’s company, WikiFoods, recently partnered with Stonyfield to put out line of organic yogurt balls called “Frozen Yogurt Pearls.” Sold at select Whole Foods locations, consumers can choose from strawberry, peach and coconut.
2. The beauty of pairing food with container
Not too far behind the trail of the Cambridge-based start-up is a Swedish design firm Tomorrow Machines, which specializes in food and packaging concepts. Founders Hanna Billqvist and Anna Glansén had started making a name for themselves last year through their ongoing collaboration with local research firm Innventia to develop a self-cleaning plate that features a coating that repels liquid.
The duo’s latest project introduces a series of elegantly-conceived biodegradable containers that match up well with various foods. A bottle made of wax-coated caramelized sugar, for example, is suitable for olive oil, since the material doesn’t react with the fatty liquids, while a container made from agar seaweed gel is best for sugary drinks like fruit juices and smoothies. Meanwhile, soft beeswax packaging labeled with soy-ink works for Basmati rice.
The company predicts that similar methods of custom-matching products with sustainable packaging will be utilized in the marketplace within five years.
3. A cup that’s as tasty as the drink
They won’t replace your favorite mug, but Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker’s newly-launched line of edible cups can make for a fun and eco-friendly alternative to those disposable plastic cups that tend to pile up at parties and celebrations.
In this case, seaweed agar turned out to be the most ideal biodegradable material for fashioning the kind of thick, rigid structures necessary for holding drinks. Popular primarily as an ingredient in Asian deserts, the algae-derived polymer is also easier to chew than alternatives like animal collagen.
After field tests, the Pratt Institute design grads brought on food scientists to improve shelf stability and also secured a manufacturer to fulfill orders. The cups, available for now in citrus flavor, are sold through their start-up LOLIWARE stating at $11.95 for a set of four.
4. No, it’s not like eating plastic
Those of us who use dishwashers are probably familiar with the new generation of detergent tablets that, curiously, can be mistaken for plastic-wrapped candy. While they’re definitely not safe to eat, Indiana-based MonoSol, which manufactures the wrapping for Tide and other similar products, has launched a version of their water-soluble film that’s both edible and dissolvable.
The polymer pouches, a proprietary blend of food grade ingredients, are transparent, have no smell or taste and breaks down completely in cold or hot water, making it suitable for cereal and oatmeal. Some people, though, may be a bit unnerved that the company seems to encourage what appears like eating plastic with food. However, the company would like to remind everyone that the technology is fairly similar to the gelcaps used in pharmaceutical pills.
Now chew over that for a bit.