New to this series? Here’s a quick recap:
If you’re like most people, you’ve never heard the term “biomimicry” before. While it is a brand-new official field of study, biomimicry has been around for as long as mankind has existed. “Bio-” meaning life and “-mimicry” meaning the action of imitating, biomimicry is the act of consciously emulating nature’s genius in other areas of human endeavor, such as product design and packaging, to create conditions conducive to life. The organisms that surround us are champion species; species that have evolved successful survival strategies for the long haul. They represent an object lesson that humans would do well to understand and apply to build a better and more sustainable future. Luckily for those of us just entering the field, the Biomimicry Institute has done most of the legwork. After intense study and research, it has developed what it calls Life’s Principles: 26 strategies that every organism employs to live in harmony with each other and the planet.
Today we’re going to look at the principle “Use Chemistry That Supports Life’s Processes” and how the company WikiFoods has used this principle to eliminate the expensive and unsustainable oil-to-plastic packaging process with quite an intriguing result.
While most packaging in the human realm is made of paper and/or plastic products, packaging in nature is made of 100 percent biodegradable organic material. Nature packages many of its fruits and vegetables in either a thin layer (grapes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, etc.) or a hard exterior layer (coconut, pineapple, watermelon, etc.). Not only are they biodegradable, but they’re also mostly edible – though a watermelon rind might not be particularly appetizing.
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The birth of WikiFoods began when a Harvard professor named David Edwards was working to find a solution to reduce the massive amounts of packaging waste produced from food delivered to impoverished parts of Africa. Dr. Edwards and his team, a professor of bioengineering and a designer, were inspired by nature’s ability to package itself with organic, biodegradable materials and developed their own membrane out of natural particles that can hold various foods and drinks. One such product, WikiPearl, is a range of frozen yogurts encased in the WikiFoods membrane – a sort of gel that is held together by electrostatic charges. Some of the flavors include a coconut skin with a mango interior, a hazelnut skin with a chocolate ice cream interior, and a peanut skin with a vanilla ice cream interior.
“The protective skin of the WikiPearls … can be handled without melting and can even be washed, just as a piece of fruit can be washed,” says Alexandra Pecci of the New Hampshire Business Review.
This biodegradable, edible food packaging eliminates the use of unsustainable materials like plastics, removing a source of waste from landfills as well as the need for natural resources like oil. Interestingly, WikiPearl will be sold in packages made of biodegradable wood fiber-based cellulose for the foreseeable future because distributors are uncomfortable with dumping the products into bulk bins like they do fruits and vegetables. As the idea starts to settle in, distributors may be more willing to sell them as originally intended.
In an interview with Leon Kaye from Sustainable Brands, Dr. Edwards remarked, “In the end, the elimination of plastic means a lot to me, but what will make this product go is when consumers say, ‘this is something I haven’t had before.’ … Food and beverage companies that figure out the plastic problem in food will have a competitive advantage.” With a growing interest in limiting the plastic waste entering land and sea, and with younger generations’ penchant for supporting brands that take sustainability to heart and “walk the talk,” brands that truly embrace sustainability will become the brand leaders of the future.
By emulating nature and using life-friendly chemistry, WikiFoods has developed a truly unique product that has garnered a lot of attention from major food and beverage firms. It seems that while sustainability is a significant benefit of edible packaging, the real draw for consumers is in the novelty of the item, a product of drawing inspiration from nature.
Life’s Principles by Biomimicry 3.8 is licensed under CC BY NC SA ND.
AskNature Team. (October 26, 2015). Self-Contained, Edible Packaging for Liquids, Mousses and Emulsions. Retrieved from https://asknature.org/idea/wikipearl/#.WaY0EdOGNFR.
Kaye, Leon. (September 9, 2013). WikiPearl Promises an Edible Packaging Revolution. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2vIcJLO.
Pecci, Alexandra. (August 7, 2014). New Stonyfield Product Takes a Giant Step Toward Edible Packaging. New Hampshire Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.nhbr.com/August-8-2014/Unpackaged-goods .