Friday, March 28, 2014

Yet Another Round of Edible Water Bottles

It's often said that history repeats itself (although I tend to agree with Mark Twain that it rhymes), but I wouldn't expect it to occur on a 2 year interval. Yet that is what has happened. FastCoExist.com is reporting on another attempt to make edible containers for water. Just 2 years ago, a Harvard professor came up with such an item (more on that in a minute). The new invention uses calcium alginate to create soft spheres of water that can (messily) be used and then eaten.
Ooho - A blob of water (calcium alginate)

As much as people like to malign PET water bottles for being "single use" and disposable, that bottle has to meet an incredible array of requirements:
  • It needs to seal the water in and all other contaminants out.
  • It needs to be made from materials that will not leach unsafe levels of chemicals into the water, or react with the water.
  • It needs to not have any structural failure:
    • during shipment from the bottles' manufacturer (who is often someone different than the company filling the bottle) to the filling plant
    • while it is in the filling equipment
    • while the bottle is put into
      • the secondary packaging (often shrinkwrap)
      • into the tertiary packaging (a cardboard box)
      • additional packaging (such as to secure it to a pallet)
    • or during shipment via (multiple) trucks or boats
    • while on the shelf or rack, particularly when multiple layers of filled bottles are stacked on top of it
    • during the "normal" lifespan that the consumer has it
    • Keep in mind that during shipment and in the hands of the consumer, the bottle can see temperature extremes from below freezing temperatures to 140 oF or more, as well as UV light which can degrade polymers. If there is structural failure, the water will leak from the bottle, requiring that at the very least, that bottle be thrown away or recycled. Keep in mind that that bottle's contents are then also wasted. Depending on the extent and location of the leaker, the cardboard packaging may be weakened so that handling the other bottles or even the pallet with a forklift may be a problem, and therefore many more bottles may end up being trashed.
  • The bottle needs to cost as little as possible.
  • The water can only diffuse very slowly through the bottle's walls. Once too much water has evaporated, the bottle no longer holds the volume stated on the label, say 500 ml. Now it's mislabeled, and cannot be sold, so into the wastestream it goes.
  • It needs to be made of material that will not biodegrade or be edible to rats, mice, etc.

Does anyone seriously think that this new invention can handle all these requirements? People get so focussed on just the act of consumption and waste disposal that they completely overlook all the additional requirements. Just the last requirement alone on this list means that this new idea is dead on arrival.

Earlier I mentioned that Harvard professor's similar invention. He has actually gotten a small business going around the concept, calling them WikiPearls, but instead of encapsulating water, they are encapsulating various food items such as ice cream, yoghurt and cheese. Right now, they are being sold at only four Whole Food Stores in the Boston area. Since "The Rheothing's " corporate jet is in the shop, I can't fly out to to Boston to check these out. (Too bad, as they look delicious.) If someone out there has access to Wikipearls, I'd be curious to know about what no one is telling us about - the packaging that is part of this "package-free" food. The WikiPearls must be packaged in something in order to be shipped to the store, even if they are just thrown in a cardboard box, and they have to have some primary packaging which would include the FDA-mandated nutritional information, ingredients list, etc. and that would protect them from premature consumption by animals. So what's the real story about the packaging?

Previous Years March 28, 2012 - The Treasure of Plastic Waste
March 28, 2011 - Thank You, Chubby Checker
March 28, 2011 - Shocking, But Not Really

2 comments:

Charles Forgy said...

I don't understand the appeal. As you point out, one of the requirements of a container is to seal contaminants out. That way, the dirt at the gym/park/etc. stays on the outside, not in you water. If you plan to eat the container, you'd need another container around it (like a bag for grapes). The other container could be reusable, but then why not just have a reusable water bottle in the first place?

John said...

Chrles,

I totally agree with you. The focus is so much on the point of use that EVERYTHING is forgotten.