Open for Discussion: Goodbye Plastic, Hello Edible Wrappers—or Nothing at all!

By Barbara Sitzman and Regis Goode

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Plastic Packaging

Plastic trash creates special problems. Landfills are overflowing, islands of garbage are collecting in our oceans, and this trash doesn’t disappear! Plastic has a long half-life and can be toxic to wildlife. Consider the plastic that wraps our food. When the sun’s ultraviolet rays hit plastic floating on the ocean surface, the bonds between polymer molecules are broken. The plastics don’t break up completely, but break down into tiny bits of plastic. When fish eat the plastic in place of real food, they starve to death.

Green Packaging

Food is going high-tech. Smart packaging in the lunch box means a healthier planet. Edible wrapping mimics properties of petroleum products without environmental concerns. This technology is not new. For years, people have been taking soluble pill capsules and recently, dissolvable strips to sweeten breath and whiten teeth are on market shelves. Two major U.S. companies are producing edible food wrappings: Monosol and WikiCell Designs.

Monosol will market edible food pouches this year. No packets to rip open and toss, just dissolve an oatmeal pouch, a drink stick, or cocoa mix in hot water. Stir until the flavorful wrapping dissolves. The pouches replace packaging that actually touches the food, but an outer box is needed to keep them clean on the supermarket shelf.

WikiCell liquid covering: Outer and inner shells are edible.

WikiCell Designs produces ultra-thin flavored membranes, called WikiCells, that surround liquids or solids shielding them from oxygen, oils, and moisture to extend their shelf life. Unlike Monosol pouches, WikiCells are washable, so the outer container can act like the skin of a fruit. You just wash and eat them.

A WikiCell is made of two sustainable layers. Eat the inner wrapping, compost the shell; no plastic is involved. The inner edible membrane, like a grape skin, is held together by intermolecular electrostatic forces. Positively charged calcium ions bind with alginate, an anionic (negatively charged) polysaccharide from brown algae (Fig. 1). The outer compostable shell is made of the residue from sugarcane crushing.

Anionic alginate molecules held together by Ca2+ cations in a WikiCell membrane

Zero packaging

in.gredients opened the first zero-packaging store in the United States in 2011. This company, located in Austin, Texas, advertises: “Bring in your containers, weigh and label them, fill them, and pay at the counter.” People buy what is needed, and waste is minimized to promote healthy, sustainable lifestyles.

Will you patronize a zero-packaging store? Will you try a WikiCell-covered ice cream? Consider your options to help sustain our environment by reducing waste. If you’d like to share your opinions, contact us at: chemmatters@acs.org.

Factoids

10–20 Years: Time it takes for a plastic bag to decompose in a landfill

5 Seconds: Time it takes for edible wrappers to decompose (it melts in your mouth or dissolves in hot water!)

Also in the April 2013 issue

In the Fog about Smog: Solving the Smog Problem from Earth and from Space
In the middle of World War II, Los Angeles residents woke up thinking that their city was under attack. A thick fog had blanketed the city and caused people’s eyes to sting and their noses to run. What caused that smog and what did we learn from it?

Ozone: Our Global Sunscreen

Miles above the surface of the Earth, a thin layer of ozone gas acts as a shield that protects us from harmful ultraviolet light. But chemicals released in the atmosphere have caused a huge hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica.