Packaging is the food industry's fall guy. It ends up in landfills, its toxins pollute our rivers and oceans, and according to researchers, it can even leave a nasty (or pleasant, but let's go for nasty) taste in our mouths. Yet we have something of a love/hate relationship with it: the more we pour down our throats and line our stomachs, the more of it we throw away.
Last month, KFC announced plans to start selling coffee at its UK outlets in edible cups made from cookie and a layer of heat-resistant white chocolate, to be called the "Scoff-ee." It's estimated that 2.5 billion disposable cups alone are discarded each year, so eating them instead could take a bite out of the volume of waste generated by the restaurant and catering industries.
At hearing about the Scoff-ee, the internet went into temporary meltdown. Some thought it genius, others absurd. But the idea of making packaging and tableware edible isn't exactly unique, says Tracy Sutton, a sustainable design consultant and founder of Root Innovation. Food and packaging's relationship is strangely symbiotic.
"Sugar and salt had been the traditional materials (used in packaging) until man formulated oil-based polymers," she explains. "Chinese rice paper, Japanese sushi seaweed, the pastry that makes a Cornish pasty; these traditional forms of edible packaging have been around for centuries. The peapod is one of my favourite examples: sugarsnap peas are enveloped in a very tasty, fresh and crunchy wrapper that protects the contents perfectly."
Sutton says that it's thanks to advances in technology and science that the "opportunities for edible packaging seem endless." And a number of modern day Willy Wonkas think they may have the golden ticket when it comes to applying said technology and science to the future of sustainable packaging. So who are they?
Leading the way is David Edwards, a Harvard professor and the brainchild behind the WikiPearl, frozen yogurt encased in specially designed skins that are supposed to mimic fruit skins, which is sold by the organic dairy manufacturer Stonyfield. In Leicester, Pepceuticals won a multimillion pound contract in 2012 to develop an edible coating that protects meat. And Brooklyn-based startup Loliware is selling a range of colourful glasses made from agar (a vegetarian substitute for gelatine) and hopes to eventually distribute them in edible boxes.
A bit like KFC's Scoff-ee, Loliware wants to play a role in reducing the number of disposable cups entering landfills. It's a mammoth task though. The cups come in a variety of flavours depending on the season, but mainly citrus (a combination of pink grapefruit and yuzu). The flavours are meant to compliment desserts and alcoholic drinks.
Chomping on your glass after doing a shot or necking some Chardonnay isn't exactly concurrent to a wild night of partying, but the startup's founders Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker tell me that they are confident that there is a demand for the kind of product they are producing, particularly among NYC's young and the trendy.
Over in Belgium, another quirky startup, Do Eat, is doing similar things with its edible verrines: disposable plates and containers suitable for party food and nibbles.
"Our verrines are made only from water and potatoes. They are neutral in taste, so you can use them with a salty recipe as well as sweet, hot or cold," explains Do Eat's co-founder Hélène Hoyois. "And if after you've finished, if you're not hungry or you have a small appetite, you can throw them into a compost. They are 100 percent biodegradable."
She believes people will buy into the idea because it means we not washing up once a party's over. Instead, we'll be left to wallow in semi-conscious states after consuming copious amounts of alcohol and eating too many Loliware cups. "They create a new culinary experience… they melt in the mouth," Hoyois adds, reiterating the verrines' desirable qualities.
Taste is obviously critical. (I mean, why would you want to put something in your mouth if it didn't taste good?) But it's not everything.
According to the co-founder of the Ooho, an edible water bottle, Rodrigo García González, we may have to sacrifice satisfying our palates for convenience. "We need water to live and ideally we shouldn't need to wrap it in order to consume it," he says quite bluntly.
Made from brown algae, the Ooho can only be described as looking like a malformed breast implant. Its current texture is jellyfish-like and the taste is bland, and González can see why this might put some people off.
"Although we are trying to make the membrane [subtle]," he says. "We also know that it could play in our favour to add flavours and aromas."
But the Ooho's magic lies in the fact that if you can't stomach the thought of bits of membrane getting stuck between your teeth, it'd take only a few weeks for it to biodegrade in the ground. In comparison, standard plastic bottles can take decades if not centuries, says González.
Beyond the issues of taste and waste, edible packaging presents other sticking points, says Sutton, namely hygiene, scalability and price. But its potential is huge and she's confident it can disrupt the food industry.
"The majority of today's manmade packaging is designed to last far longer than its contents," she tells me. "It feels much more natural and considered to have something that does its job to protect and serve its contents, that is then eaten—or composted—easily at home."
So there you have it. Don't expect to find any plastic in the kitchen of the future; expect a smorgasbord of bottles, cups and plates, all fit for human consumption, instead. Willy Wonka eat your heart out.