Introducing WikiCells, a membrane designed to keep anything from soup to ice cream in shape, with a tasty coating.

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Photo: Wikicell DR

Photo: Wikicell DR

By Isabel Sloman at Green Futures

Introducing WikiCells, a membrane designed to keep anything from soup to ice cream in shape, with a tasty coating.

Plastics, paper and polystyrene from food packaging make up a significant proportion of household waste sent to landfill. But what if we could simply eat packaging like we do the skin of an apple?

Harvard professor David Edwards and French designer Francois Azambourg have developed WikiCells, a tasty and nutritious membrane made from natural polymers and food particles. WikiCells are designed to mimic bottles, and also containers found in nature – such as grape skins or coconut shells.

The cell membranes are made from natural electrostatic gels and then, if necessary, covered in an outer, more resilient layer made of nuts and seeds, or small pieces of chocolate or dried fruit. For example, WikiCell ice cream [pictured] contains balls of ice cream served in a container made from bagasse, the fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane has been crushed for juice. This can either be eaten, or peeled and left to biodegrade, depending on the tastes of the user. Edwards and his creative team have been careful not to let scientific innovation compromise taste. For example, they have created a tomato membrane that contains gazpacho soup, and orange juice housed within an orange membrane. The designers believe that almost any membrane flavour is possible.

The creators have been granted $10 million of investment capital from Flagship Ventures and Polaris Venture Partners after trialling WikiCell ice cream, yoghurt, mousse, soup, cheese, juice and cocktails during the first half of 2012. The first commercial products are currently being tasted in a series of private events at the new WikiBarin Paris, ahead of its public opening in June. They will also be launched in Cambridge, Massachusetts, later in the year.

But what are the environmental benefits? WikiCells states that the amount of energy needed to produce its membranes is equivalent to that of standard packaging, though it is currently working on a low-energy production method.

The ultimate success of the product may come down to consumer experience and demand. Ann-Marie Brouder, Principal Sustainability Advisor for the Food Team at Forum for the Future, asks whether edible is ‘credible’:

“Edible packaging might be part of the solution, but it must overcome concerns about food safety, as well as the thornier issue of consumer perception.”

Another concern is the life cycle of such products. Edwards says:

“We’re trying to avoid any kind of chemical modification and just use natural processes and materials. But there is a time-scale on this packaging. It depends what it is and how you store it, it is not like plastic that is around forever.”

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures published by Forum for the Future.