Are edible plates, beakers and straws the future of packaging? We tasted them to find out
“I have a confession,” says Vishal Jain. “I sold plastic for ten years. Reusable plastic items, but plastic nonetheless.” Now, his latest venture, ViMi, a zero-waste lifestyle shop with a stall at Spitalfields Market – is among the first retailers in the UK to stock Biotrem, a range of party-perfect, edible plates made with wheat bran and invented in Poland by a farmer named Jerzy Wysocki.
While this may all feel a bit Willy Wonka, edible disposables are tipped to soon enter the mainstream. According to the UK Food and Drink Innovation Network, edible packaging will help to wean consumers worldwide off their plastic habit.
Recent development in the sector includes edible packaging created with apples produced by Samara State Technical University in Russia. Originally designed for astronauts, it decomposes just as fast as apples (whereas polyethylene wrap takes 500 years).
Disposable manufacturer Herald Plastic now sells edible straws in lemon, lime, strawberry, cinnamon, ginger, apple and chocolate flavours. While paper straws have less impact on the environment than plastic, these are even better.
And edible products are catching on fast: this month, Diageo, the world's largest producer of spirits, announced that they are to launch a range of edible straws in collaboration with online drinks retailer 31Dover.com, to be paired with popular pre-mixed drinks such as Baileys Iced Coffee (chocolate straw), Captain Morgan and cola, and Pimm’s and lemonade (strawberry straw).
A tin of Gordon’s gin and tonic will, of course, come with a lime-flavoured straw.
Meanwhile, food and drink 'futurologist' Dr. Morgaine Gaye envisages edible sugar wine bottles as the future of al fresco entertaining. “Non-plastic glasses made from corn starch will come to the fore. The ‘glass’ is fully-compostable, so festival-goers can drink on the go while doing their bit for the planet. Edible bottles will also help counteract packaging waste," explains Dr Morgaine.
"Wine can be bottled in an edible sugar substitute such as isomalt. The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa, has started developing edible membranes from papaya, complementing wine tasting profiles with the flavour of the vessel itself, and bringing a whole new meaning to wine pairing."
Whether you eat it all or not, edible packaging is far faster to decompose than other options. The organic wheat bran plates and bowls that Vishal Jain sells on his stall are fully biodegradable via composting in 30 days (or presumably sooner, via the human digestive system – and they’re high in fibre, so they get a tick for nutritional value, too).
“Paper plates, in contrast, will take around 180 days,” he tells me. “You can even bake them in the oven or put them in the microwave, and serve hot soup in them.” In addition, they make use of a by-product we already have in abundance. Wheat bran is used to feed animals as fodder, but there’s still plenty left over. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
Jain is preaching to the converted: Biotrem caught my eye when videos of millennials scoffing them at festivals went viral on YouTube. Novelty aside, I wondered why no-one else had cottoned on to the idea of simply replacing disposable party kit and tableware with edible goodies.
It turns out they have: Do Eat, a French company, have started to produce edible verrines, sandwich rings, cupcake holders and food bags made with potato starch.
They come in plain white, but should you desire, they can be patterned with vegetable ink. Ideal for canapés and bowl food, they work well with both sweet and savoury morsels (I opted for cream cake and fruit).
While they taste a little bland, stale and papery, slightly waxy and oily from the cocoa butter content (and they do smell a bit like crayons, weirdly), they’re not quite as hideous as you might expect.
Your saliva breaks it down fairly quickly after the initially unusual sensation of eating a paper-like substance, and then they just taste like a mouthful of mash; they remind me of stale communion wafers.
In this case, I felt that a caramelised lattice would work just as well as a vessel – but if you were thinking of serving Buddha bowls in cardboard or burritos in paper, they'd decompose quicker even if your party guests didn’t deign to eat them.
Like the wheat bran plates from ViMi (which are bland, just like bran flake cereal), Do Eat’s products end up being ‘seasoned’ by whatever you eat on them, whether it’s chilli, ketchup, a salad dressing or just salt and pepper.
I can see them catching on at barbecues, children’s parties and street food stalls like wildfire. “Biotrem is already doing exceptionally well in countries like Berlin, Belgium and Romania. England is late to the party,” says Jain.
I have only one qualm: what about the packaging used to store the packaging itself? Hilariously, my sample box of Herald’s edible straws arrive each individually wrapped in paper, and I have to carry my Biotrem wheat bran plates in a paper bag to stop them from getting grubby before dinner.
But this isn’t so much about “going plastic-free”, as reducing waste as far as possible with tiny, almost unnoticeable tweaks. Far from being elitist, Jain’s mission at ViMi is to show how accessible and affordable sustainable lifestyle changes can be. Does Jain try to live a waste-free life himself, I wonder? “It’s a challenge; it’s not easy. I’d say just do your best,” he says.
With that in mind, if you fancy swapping out a few single-use disposables from your next summer soirée (or perhaps setting up a lab of your own), here’s some of the latest innovations in edible food and drink packaging...
Ohhoo! Water pouches
Drunk your water? Soon, you’ll be able to eat the bottle in which it came. These Ooho ‘water blobs’ from Skipping Rocks Lab, a London start-up, are designed to take the place of plastic water bottles; the edible spheres, made with plants and seaweed, can be used to carry water, soft drinks and spirits. If you don’t eat them, they will biodegrade in four to six weeks like a piece of fruit, anyway.
An American brand founded by Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker, graduates of the Parsons School of Design in New York. Loliware make edible cups in flavours including yuzu citrus, tart cherry, matcha green tea, vanilla bean, and an unflavoured “natural clear”. Made with seaweed and organic sweeteners, the flavouring and colouring is derived from fruits and vegetables. They say that seaweed is a renewable resource which doesn’t require land resources and actually absorbs CO2. They're currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter to launch a ‘hypercompostible Lolistraw’ - so soon you'll be able to choose between vanilla and caramel straws to pair with your cold-brew coffee.
Evoware seaweed packaging
Evoware, based in Indonesia, also harnesses seaweed as a resource. Their food wraps for sandwiches and burgers and sachets for coffee and dry seasoning dissolve immediately in water (unlike paper or plastic), and are also safe to eat, with a 2-year shelf life. Tasteless, and odourless.
Bakeys sorghum spoons
Indian company Bakeys, founded by ecopreneur Narayana Peesapaty, uses 'agri-waste' (sorghum, millet, rice and wheat flours) kneaded with hot water and baked in moulds to make edible cutlery in sweet, plain and savoury.
Herald Plastic edible straws
This UK wholesaler sells cinnamon, lemon, lime, strawberry, ginger, apple and chocolate flavoured straws. They taste a bit like sweets, and pair well with different drinks: each staw contains 27kcal and 7g of sugar, and they don't go as mushy as paper straws. Moreish.
Do Eat edible food wraps and verrines
These wraps and containers from French company Do Eat are made with potato starch. For a crunchy texture, you can even put them directly in the grill. Gluten-free.
Biotrem edible wheat bran bowls and plates
Surprisingly sturdy, unlike flimsy paper or plastic. Oven-proof and microwaveable, they taste just like thick, bland bran flakes.