part of a 30-part series called "Game Changers." This special series investigates the most remarkable advancements in science, energy and health — and how they will impact the way we live. This series is brought to you by Samsung's Galaxy S3.
A major global company like Coca-Cola sells more than 1.5 billion cans of coke every day. Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. In 2010, 14 million tons of plastic containers and packaging ended up in U.S. landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The barriers to plastic alternatives have not historically been a lack of ideas. It's the combination of scale, stability and cost — all those things that have made plastic a success over the last century — that has prevented the implementation of those ideas.
WikiCells, an edible skin that takes the place of plastic packaging and protects the food or liquid within, moves past all of those obstacles.
"This may be the first scalable, inexpensive, stable packaging solution that fully eliminates plastic," said inventor David Edwards, a professor at Harvard University. "Beyond being edible, the reality is it's solving a major industry, health and environmental need today."
Here's where it started.
At Harvard, Edwards teaches a class called "How to Create Things and Have Them Matter." In the fall of 2008, Edwards gave his students the seed of an idea: To explore how a biological cell could help us think about carrying water more efficiently in drought-stricken parts of the world.
About a year later, the biomedical engineer, whose past ideas have led to imaginative creations like inhalable caffeine and breathable chocolate, realized the the rules of nature could also be applied to food packaging.
"Like a grape, you can't empty the inside of biological cell and have something left," says Edwards. "It made me wonder whether you could recreate packaging with that in mind and eliminate plastic."
From there, Edwards contacted a designer in Paris, Francois Azambourg, and asked if he would like to work on the project. The first take on the WikiCell design was the Edible Bottle a concept that debuted at Le Leboratoire in Fall 2010. The French lab, located next to the Louvre in Paris, was founded by Edwards in 2007 for people to showcase experiments in art, design and science and invite the public to test them.
"At that point, the project was very hypothetical and curiosity-driven," Edwards said. "Yes, we were sensitive to the need of eliminating plastic and packaging, but it clearly wasn't the commercial notion; it was just a general, philosophical scientific design question."
Over the next two years, Edwards continued to test the limits of WikiCells: gazpacho soup wrapped in a tomato skin, a grape pouch filled with wine, and orange juice in an orange-flavored skin. In January 2012, the engineer presented the idea of WikiCells at Harvard. The talk generated immediate buzz culminating in the founding of WikiCells Designs, a startup based in Cambridge, Ma. The company's CEO is Robert Connelly. Ice cream housed in an edible shell is their first commercial product.
What is a WikiCell?
A soft skin holds and protects foods and drinks like ice cream, yogurt, cheese, juice and pudding.
The WikiCell actually has two layers of packaging. The primary packaging, which is all edible, is mostly made of natural food particles from chocolate, nuts, fruit and seeds (imagine chocolate chip ice cream with a cookie dough skin or yogurt with a blueberry skin, for example). This soft wrapper is equivalent to the skin of the grape and can be washed like a regular piece of fruit. Then there's the hard-shell packing, which may or may not be edible. In the cases where you can't eat the outer-shell, it's completely biodegradable so it can be peeled off and thrown away at less cost to the environment.
In a supermarket setting, it helps to think of WikiCell Ice Cream like a Magnum bar. Chocolate ice creams bars are sold in cardboard boxes. Within that box, each chocolate bar is individually covered in a plastic wrapper. With a WikiCell, the cardboard box would be the outer-shell (only completely biodegradable). The edible skin of the WikiCell completely eliminates a need for the secondary wrapper.
"It's as shippable as a standard package," says Edwards.
In the near-term, products like WikiCell ice cream, yogurt and juice are available though something called a WikiBar, a setting that allows the public to sample and experiment with edible wrapping. The first WikiBar opened at the lab store in Paris last year. WikiBars will begin to appear in American retail shops in 2013. With the next three years, WikiCells will expand into specialty shops and supermarkets like Whole Foods and Stop &Shop.
The idea is to partner with established brands in the food and beverage industry, creating new flavor combinations by wrapping well-known products with WikiCells, says company CEO Robert Connelly.
In parallel, the company plans to go directly to consumer by developing a vending machine for the home that would allow people to design their own WikiCell packaging, say choosing a soda with a caramel skin in the size of a grape.
"The notion of giving consumers the ability to 'Wiki-fy' their packaging is inherent in what we're doing," Edwards said. "Likely, over the next several years, as we cross a broad spectrum of products — starting with ice cream, then yogurts, cheeses, soda and eventually water — all of these things will ask for different amounts of consumer adoption or change of behavior."
If changing the way we eat means challenging the throwaway culture, then we are more than ready, Dr. Edwards.