This is a guest post from Tom Szaky, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of TerraCycle, which provides free waste collection, and then turns that waste into sustainable products.
When I was young, an older schoolmate told me paper gum wrappers were edible. She said that if you pop the whole stick in your mouth, wrapper and all, the paper would just disappear. Later that night, I unwrapped a stick of gum and suspiciously put only the wrapper in my mouth. I waited and chewed a bit, but it didn’t dissolve. It seems my schoolmate was either mashing up the paper wrapper in the stick of gum and didn’t notice a difference or she was just messing with me.
I thought of the gum wrapper when I read this article about WikiCells, a form of edible packaging developed by Harvard professor David Edwards. Unlike the flavorless, “disappearing” gum wrapper, WikiCells add flavor and nutrients that compliment whatever is contained inside. According to WikiCells, “This skin may be comprised primarily of small particles of chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, or many other natural substances.” They are mainly used to package soft foods, such as ice cream, yogurt, cheese or beverages.
This got me thinking about using edible packaging for more than just soft foods. A lot of things have been made in edible versions – necklaces, tableware, under garments, even shoes – but they are mostly novelty items or prototypes that haven’t taken hold in a meaningful way.
When most people throw away trash, they think it will break down in a landfill eventually. The truth is that most of what we throw away will still be sitting in a landfill hundreds of years after we’re gone. What if we, as consumers, were responsible for breaking down some of our packaging at home by eating it? Unlike composting, you don’t need any extra space, time or skills to do it. You simply do something you’ve been doing since birth – eat. The packaging would have to washable, like fruit skin, and nutritionally neutral. Edible packaging could be flavorless, like the gum wrapper, or flavored, like the WikiCells. Flavor would become another be carefully considered characteristic of packaging, just like logos, colors and label design.
At TerraCycle, we directly reuse packaging, we upcycle packaging and we recycle packaging. I’d love to add a fourth solution and pile edible packaging on desks for employees to nosh on throughout the day.
What if, instead of sending chip bags to TerraCycle through the Chip Bag Brigade, you could eat the bag at home to prevent it from going to a landfill? What if, after your baby ate Sprout Foods baby food, you ate the pouch it came in, making the meal zero-waste with minimal extra work? Would you do it?