This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Outside the Box: The Story of Food Packaging, first released on June 28, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
ROBERT PROCTOR: Well of course some of the earliest you might not even recognize as packages. It would be the human hand. It would be the human stomach, the mouth. It would be leaves that chimps or early humans would use to transport products, it would be gourds, horns, eventually baskets much later.
NICOLA TWILLEY: These gourds and leaves and horns—they are the first food packaging. And they started something that ended up changing the course of human civilization.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I know it might sound like we’re overselling things a bit here, but really. Bear with us. It’ll all make sense. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this episode we’re going to tell the story of how our food got dressed—and why we might want to help it get naked again. In other words, it’s the story of packaging.
PROCTOR: It’s interesting because I went to Bali last year and they had no plastic until 15 years ago so everything, all of their food was wrapped in leaves.
GRABER: That’s Robert Proctor. He’s a professor of history of science at Stanford University and co-author of the book Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire.
TWILLEY: And, in the book, Robert and his co-author Gary Cross go back to the dawn of packaging. Well, almost the dawn. Like Robert says, the very first food packaging would have been ephemeral—those leaves haven’t left much trace in the archaeological record.
GRABER: The first food packaging that did leave a significant archaeological trace is clay pots. They date back to at least 25-30,000 years ago. But those pots were still pretty rare until the invention of the potter’s wheel—that took about 20,000 years more. And then suddenly clay pots were everywhere.
PROCTOR: And in a way the pot is the artificial stomach that is extended out into the world.
TWILLEY: That is a pretty weird way to think about a pot, but I like it. And with this new, external food holder, humans could get a head start on breaking down food outside the stomach. We’d been able to roast food since we’d had fire, but this amazing new food container, the clay pot — this allowed us to do all sorts of other things.
PROCTOR: Things like fermentation, so alcohols and wines. Those are no doubt the result of the happy accident of storing grain storing grapes and then discovering that when they ferment that that’s nice as well. You couldn’t have that without without containers. And then you get sauces you get stew you get new forms of cooking, which don’t just involve the spit but actually some kind of combination.
GRABER: People could use these new clay pots to make sauces and stews and pickles and booze. Oops, that rhymed. But they could create entirely new food flavors. And—as important or even more important than the joy to our taste buds—they could make food that would last longer than the fresh stuff. And you have a container to put it in. And that means it can now be transported.
TWILLEY: It’s really hard to overstate how big of a change that must have been. Food was always local before the invention of pots, because it had to be—and not just local, but really local.
PROCTOR: You ate what you found, you ate what you hunted, you ate what you grew. And if you could trade it, put it into amphorae and ship it around the Mediterranean around the southeast of Asia, that had a tremendous impact. Of course, only certain things could be stored and easily traded but you got sauces and wines, preserved things, oils. And it really de-localized food for the first time in history.
GRABER: The thing is, most people didn’t get to enjoy all these delicious sauces and wines and oils. These pots were really valuable, and so they were meant for the elites—but at the same time, food packaging helped create elites.
PROCTOR: And it allows stratification, accumulation of wealth, the world’s first obesity, in a way it really allows class society. I mean try to imagine any early wealth without some way to to contain food.
CROSS: I mean when you think about it, food is harvested in very episodic ways. I mean it’s—it ripens only a few weeks out of a year. You have to find some way of containing it for for a long period of time and preserving it. And of course the pot becomes part of that long process of finding ways to to get through to periods when there is no food available and it immensely enhances the power of those who control the food.
TWILLEY: Gary Cross is the second voice you heard there, after Robert. They wrote Packaged Pleasures together and he’s a professor of modern history at Penn State. And Gary’s point is that the pot turned food from a shared resource into private property.
CROSS: We move from a period where food might have been stored in a pit that would have been held in common perhaps by a reasonably large group of people to food and drink that would be—it would be held privately and controlled by by elites, and thus the container becomes a sort of an emblem of privilege and power for hundreds of years.
TWILLEY: Standing in my kitchen, surrounded by Ziplock and Tupperware, this is sort of hard to get my head around. But for most of human history, anything that could hold food was a symbol of real power.
GRABER: And there’s more. Storing food makes food resources more predictable throughout the year, so it allowed for population growth. Now you have both class stratification and a growing population.
PROCTOR: So without the storage and accumulation you get with it with containers, you wouldn’t have much of modern civilization.
TWILLEY: I mean literally. In their book, Robert and Gary come straight out and say that these early food containers—these clay pots—they’re what made the great ancient civilizations of China, India, Sumeria, and Mesoamerica even possible.
GRABER: And some of the greatest materials ever invented were invented to hold food. Like the first paper. Paper was invented in China, almost 2,500 years ago. It was made from sheets of mulberry bark. And what did they use this first paper for? To wrap food.
TWILLEY: It wasn’t till later that they used it for toilet paper and for sharing pornography.
GRABER: All the important things.
TWILLEY: But food came first! And then there’s glass that was invented in Mesopotamia about 3,500 BCE and it was used for food containers: cups, bowls, and jars. I mean, glass and paper—it’s hard to imagine any aspect of our lives today without them—and they were invented as forms of food packaging!
GRABER: But like we said, glass bottles and mulberry paper and ceramic pots, these were all for the elites. The powerful got the best food. And then they could get even richer by shipping that packaged food off to distant lands.
TWILLEY: It wasn’t until really surprisingly recently that common people such as myself…
GRABER: And me
TWILLEY: …regularly got our grubby little hands on food packaging. And we have Napoleon to thank for that.
PROCTOR: Well, like a lot of these innovations has do with warfare. Napoleon was interested in provisioning his armies over long distances and actually offered a prize for anyone who could, you know, create foods that would not spoil.
TWILLEY: It was a cash prize of 12,000 francs that was a year’s salary at the time. And a guy called Nicolas Appert rose to the challenge. He spent years developing a method to seal food in cork stoppered bottles and then boil it so it wouldn’t go bad.
GRABER: He won the prize and he did deliver a batch to the French Navy in 1803. Though, to be honest, it didn’t actually serve to feed Napoleon’s army at the time.
TWILLEY: That’s right, they lost the war. And it took a Brit to make Appert’s new technique useful, by inventing the tin can.
PROCTOR: These early tin cans, they’d be opened by a bayonet.
GRABER: It actually took three quarters of a century later to figure out how to pry that top off. Yes, it wasn’t until 70 years after the invention of the can that anyone invented a can opener.
TWILLEY: Gary says that’s why it’s hard to think of the tin can as a packaging revolution—because it didn’t happen overnight.
CROSS: In some ways it’s—it’s incremental and it’s not very dramatic. In the middle of the 19th century, there would be small improvements, various other kinds of cutting machines to take the iron and tin-covered a sheet metal and and wrap it around a cylinder and add a seam of solder. These kinds of machines came along in the 1850s and 1860s that made it possible to have tin cans by the Civil War.
GRABER: During the Civil War, a guy called Gail Borden sold the sweetened condensed milk in a can, and Borden is a brand we still see in stores today. And along with their condensed milk, Union soldiers ate canned pork and beans. But it often spoiled. And there was lead in the food from the soldering. And then the boiling process meant that all tasted like shoe leather.
TWILLEY: And so there was more incremental progress.
CROSS: But they’re not—they’re not terribly dramatic and it’s really only at the end of the 19th century, really about 1904 and 5, when you you have the full completion of the, I suppose, canning revolution with the so-called double seamed can that reduced the need for solder and and the dangers of it. Which was an ingenious invention but one that isn’t very dramatic, but its impact was dramatic in the sense that there was this huge increase in the speed of producing cans and their cheapness. So you could, instead of canning just for the military or just for the elite, you could you could can tomato soup for the masses.
TWILLEY: And Andy Warhol’s future subject matter was born.
GRABER: Robert and Gary’s book is called Packaged Pleasures, and they refer to this time—this moment at the end of the nineteenth century where tin cans and cheap bottles brought deliciousness to the masses—they call it the packaged pleasure revolution. It’s not just that we all had access to treats that were delicious. It’s really that these treats—they used to be rare. But now they could be bottled up and enjoyed whenever you wanted.
TWILLEY: There are lots of reasons why these kinds of pleasures become more widespread, but packaging is a big part of it. And this democratization of packaging— know we keep saying it, but it’s really kind of shocking how recent of a thing this is in human history.
PROCTOR: The elaborate ceramics and much of what we find you know and in museums, a lot of this for the the the elites. And that is one of the important things that changes in the 19th century with the packaged pleasures revolution is that containers become ubiquitous. The pop bottle, the Mason jar, the tin can and all of those things are much more more recent.
TWILLEY: Ah, Mason jars. Where would Brooklyn be without them? But the funny thing is, the Mason jar represented a tremendous breakthrough in a really difficult problem: the lid problem. We might have had glass bottles for 2,000 years, but sealing them up—that was a different matter. At first people used wood, and oil soaked rags, and then in the 17th century, French wine makers started using plugs made from the bark of cork trees. We know them as corks. And then…
GRABER: John Landis Mason. In 1858, he invented the screw-lid jar. Until then, all these tops that Nicky just described, these were better for narrow-mouthed jars. But the screw-lid that we still use today? That works for wider-mouthed glass jars.
TWILLEY: Wide mouth narrow mouth schmouth. Mason’s real innovation was resealability!
CROSS: You know it made it possible for you to open a jar of pickles or mayonnaise or whatever and then screw the cap back on and preserve it for some period of time. And, you know, it also eventually would facilitate not just the preservation of the whole lot of foodstuffs, condiments and lots of other things, peanut butter I mean is what I think of.
GRABER: And for many Americans, being able to preserve peanut butter? That’s key to survival.
TWILLEY: The PB&J is practically America’s national sandwich, although I guess the burger has a strong claim. But to go with your PB&J, how about a nice bottle of Coke? Turns out keeping that fizz in the bottle, that’s another recent triumph of packaging.
GRABER: It’s hard to imagine now, but drinking soda used to be a communal thing. It was social— it was an outing. You’d meet your friends and sit around the counter sipping a special treat. Soda couldn’t be bottled, so you couldn’t drink it at home. Until the bottle cap.
PROCTOR: That’s one of the most interesting stories.
CROSS: And there were lots of different attempts to make to make bottle caps. You know, some of them involve little brackets, some of them involved stoppers that would be inside the bottle and would have to be pulled out. And then of course, the cap that we’re all familiar with today’s developed had a guy named Painter, called the crown cap, which made it possible to very rapidly top a bottle, particularly useful in preserving carbonated beverages. Which is where it was used extensively when it appeared in the early 1890s.
TWILLEY: You know what’s funny? Before the crown cap, one of the earlier attempts at keeping in the fizz was something called the Hutchinson stopper. It involved a rubber disk mounted on a spring, and when you pushed the disk in, it made a popping noise. Which is where we get the name soda pop. The very first Coca Cola bottles were Hutchinson stopper type bottles.
GRABER: These tops—first the Hutchinson stopper and then the crown cap—what they did is make it so that now we could all have a special treat right in our own kitchen. A social pleasure became a private, personal one. But this did something else, too. Suddenly there was one Coca Cola instead of many different colas.
CROSS: Like in the case of sodas, for example, you go from hundreds of different kinds of of soda, some of it, I mean I’m seeing recipes that kind of surprise me with the exotic flowers that would be used, and vegetables as well.
PROCTOR: And so every farmer might have their own root cellar, roots, you know, wild plants and they would make their own root beer. So George Washington had his own recipe, a lot of the founding fathers had their own root beer recipes. And a lot of those roots are weeded out so to speak and become much more narrow in terms of what’s actually added when it becomes mass produced.
TWILLEY: Packaging meant we could all taste the same thing, wherever we were. For the first time, there could be national food and drink brands. So instead of hundreds of regional soda flavors, you get just a couple, and instead of eggs and bacon you get cornflakes.
GRABER: Like with the can, the story of paper and cardboard packaging is one of incremental improvements, so it might not seem like the major revolution that it was. But there were some pretty big, pretty recent changes. Like, it wasn’t until 1867 that paper was made from wood instead of cloth, and that made it a lot cheaper.
CROSS: And if you think of something like the corrugated box it’s, you know, it’s so ubiquitous you know think about it. But actually it’s a pretty it’s a pretty amazing invention. You’ve got paperboard on two sides and in the middle a kind of wavy form of it.
TWILLEY: Corrugated cardboard just did not exist until the 1850s. Before that people had to use wooden crates to ship food, which weighed a ton and were also more expensive.
CROSS: And it’s a strong box and it made it possible to replace wooden boxes and barrels and made it possible to ship stuff with without near as much weight as was the case in the past. Little things like this really revolutionize transport of goods.
GRABER: Revolutionize transport—and revolutionize breakfast.
TWILLEY: Right, the cornflakes. So, we sort of told the story of cornflakes in our breakfast episode last year, but here’s the thing: without a lightweight, moisture-proof, strong-sided box, you can’t have cornflakes. They would get crushed on the way to your breakfast bowl. The invention of cornflakes drove the introduction of these kind of wax-lined paperboard cartons—and in turn the wax-lined paperboard cartons made the cornflakes possible. And before you know it, you have CrackerJacks and Nabisco Uneeda biscuits—that’s the very first cracker sold in a package, rather than in bulk from a cracker barrel. And they’re joined by all kinds of other snacks—all kept fresh and whole inside this new form of packaging.
GRABER: And these big square paperboard boxes made something else possible, too:
CROSS: Well of course what the packaging does is allows you to label it. And once you label something it makes it possible to develop a trademark, it allows you to to have a label that serves as a form of advertisement, serve as a means to create demand for a product, creates illusion perhaps in some cases about what what they what is contained in the box or in the bottle. It becomes almost as important as the contents itself.
TWILLEY: So once you start to look at it big picture, this food packaging revolution the packaged pleasure revolution, as Gary and Robert call it—it didn’t just preserve food or make it portable. It’s a complete cliche to say it, but it really changed everything.
PROCTOR: It’s a transformation that allows people to dole out things in a sort of a convenient bite size form that really didn’t exist before.
CROSS: And it’s ended the communal meal. Even as early as 1910, candy bars were sold as alternatives to having a common meal. You would buy a quarter pound candy bar and that would be your lunch. And there’s the whole kind of shift away from the family or neighborly sharing of food. You know companion, you know, sharing of bread, is one of the partial casualties of the packaged revolution. The whole idea of the snack food and the way that it becomes possible to to basically graze all day because your food source doesn’t depend upon sharing of a common table. It’s something you can get out of a bag and you can eat while you’re driving or walking or doing whatever you want, while you’re listening to your iPad, or whatever.
PROCTOR: Well there’s huge social transformations that come out as a result of this. So it allows, you know, people to have vegetables or foods in the winter. It allows people to have them from distant places, and a variety that was never possible before, and a satiety that was never possible before in a way our book is about the prehistory of addictions because things that were rare, once rare, you know, the sweets and fruits could now be had year-round in near infinite quantity, and much cheaper too. All of this involved massive dropping of prices. And not only that but the packaging concentrates the experience concentrates this sensation, intensifies it.
GRABER: So obviously there are both good and bad things about this democratization of food and pleasure. Packaging means we can eat a wider variety of food all year round. But we don’t eat as communally as we did in the past. And then in some ways, Robert says packaging helped launch the modern obesity epidemic—now we can have sweets whenever and however we want them.
CROSS: In some ways we’re still playing by the rules in which pleasure was scarce. You know we really haven’t really come to terms with the immense complexity of having pleasure that is so ubiquitous and so readily accessible. And where to draw the line is something that has bedeviled us throughout this century.
TWILLEY: And this is all before we get to plastic. Which introduces a whole boatload of other packaging-related problems. Not least of which is environmental disaster.
GRABER: But we need packaging. It’s impossible to imagine life without food packaging. Or is it?
TWILLEY: And now it’s time to get back to our story. Talking to Gary and Robert, there are two things that really stand out. I’ve said this already but I’m going to say it again: Mass market ubiquitous food packaging is really pretty recent. And it’s made huge changes in how we consume food. But there’s something else that came with those changes: a lot of waste.
GRABER: In America, the environmental protection agency has found that a third of municipal solid waste—the stuff that goes into landfills—is packaging. And two-thirds of that is food packaging. That means that each American, on average, throws about two-thirds of a pound of food packaging in the garbage every single day. Just try to picture how many paper boxes and plastic jars and chip packets and milk cartons and coffee cups—how much of that stuff it would take to get up to ⅔ of a pound—that’s actually a lot.
TWILLEY: And like Gary and Robert told us, the packaging revolution started with paper and glass and tins. But a lot of our food nowadays comes in plastic. And that is a whole other environmental nightmare. There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris floating about in the ocean alone. And yes, I did say trillion.
GRABER: So you might say, but I recycle all my food packaging. First of all, that’s actually pretty much impossible because most places don’t recycle polystyrene. But even when you can and do recycle your food packaging, it’s not a perfect solution. In general, it does take a lot less energy to recycle glass and aluminum and plastic than making something from raw materials, but it still takes energy.
TWILLEY: And then more often than you hope, recycling plants can’t actually recycle all the stuff you send their way. It might have got contaminated, for instance. So some ends up in the landfill anyway.
GRABER: And then even after a jar or box is recycled, some products, like some plastics and paper, they can only be recycled a limited number of times. They can’t be remade forever. So…
MELISSA DE LA FONTAINE: So I’m still doing recycling but it’s I’m really trying to avoid it as much as I can also. So I consider it as half waste.
TWILLEY: That’s Mélissa de la Fontaine. She’s based in Montreal and she’s trying to live a zero waste life. Gastropod listener Becca Frasier suggested that we should give her a call to find out how Melissa gets by without food packaging.
GRABER: We’ll talk to Melissa more a little later. But okay, packaging was invented to hold food but now we make huge pits—landfills—to hold that packaging. Recycling is good, but it’s not perfect. So what other solutions are there?
TWILLEY: Biodegradable packaging? That seems cool. Right? I mean that seems like it could solve our whole food packaging waste conundrum.
GRABER: Well, yes and no. Things don’t biodegrade very quickly in landfills. There’s not enough oxygen for that to happen. You can find newspapers from decades ago in landfills that you can still read. Even if it’s a compostable package, most of those only decompose in the heat of a municipal compost pile, not a home bin. So unless you have a city-wide composting program, most biodegradable food packages aren’t really going anywhere. People are working on better biodegradable solutions, but they’re basically not on grocery store shelves yet.
TWILLEY: Of course, there is one fully biodegradable kind of packaging that really does get broken down at home. And that’s edible packaging. Which, as it turns out, goes way back
PROCTOR: Yeah that way you would have been much more likely to have edible packaging 300 years ago than than 50 years ago.
CROSS: One form of it of course is a pastry which comes down those to pasties where you basically take a pastry and in which you put things like potatoes and beef and and onions, and you make it into a to a meal. You know that would be would be one real common way of containing food in an edible form.
PROCTOR: Yes, so you would bring instead of a lunch box you know or a sandwich you’d bring your pie you know to your work or to the fields, and that would be your container. Must have been a sort of a tough crust. But yeah it’s a kind of a pie packaging.
TWILLEY: So Cornish pasties are the trad version of edible packaging.
GRABER: But then we met David Edwards. And he is trying to reinvent edible packaging.
TWILLEY: It feels like it’s cold but it’s dry.
DAVID EDWARDS: It’s dry. That’s the surprising thing, even on a hot day. That’s the surprising thing.
GRABER: Can I try one of these halves over here?
TWILLEY: You can sort of mush with it a little.
GRABER: It has that sort of jelly-like…
EDWARDS: Yeah, take a little bite actually is a better way to do it. Yeah it’s like kind of, that’s the, that’s….
TWILLEY: That’s correct way to eat a Wikipearl.
GRABER: Okay, so let’s try this one.
TWILLEY: Wikipearls are David’s first edible packaging product. So David is a scientist and inventor, and the founder of Cafe ArtScience and Le Laboratoire in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
EDWARDS: So I at some point in the early—middle 2000s was working in Africa and there was lots of trash that was sort of piling up. And so I began to think about why we didn’t really use the example of the fruit to package food more wisely I guess. The coconut is by far the best bottle we have. And it has two layers: one is an edible layer which is the endoderm, the white thing, the stuff that we eat. And then you have the hard shell, the endocarp. Fruit that is not liquid tends to have just a skin like a grape.
GRABER: Those Wikipearls we tasted are indeed like a grape. Mushy inside with a skin.
EDWARDS: I’m cutting here through the cherry Wikipearl, so you can see the coconut based ice cream and the skin and you can see that the ice cream is already melting but the skin hangs together. So you can actually put this in a microwave. Now you can blow it up if you make a high intensity but it can melt it and it becomes like a milkshake basically.
TWILLEY: So the thing that Cynthia and I are putting in our mouths, it’s like a cherry tomato size. And the outside is like fruit leather, in cherry and chocolate and blueberry flavors. And I kept eating them all in one mouthful which is wrong, but if you bite into them, you see that the inside is this coconut ice cream. And so the next question is, how on earth does fruit leather work as packaging for ice cream? That seems insane. Like sure, for a few hours, but fruit leather can’t hold a liquid for long, can it?
EDWARDS: But if you make these skins around yogurt it’s stable for a month or maybe 50 days. So there’s a—it’s a real barrier. So it really is packaging and it really is edible—and the trick there then is the combination of the particles, the food particles which is new but also this layering like we do with our skin.
GRABER: You’re saying our skin is the ultimate edible packaging.
EDWARDS: I knew I was going to be in trouble for saying that. I’m just just pointing out that the structure of the skin—the stratum corneum—is really how nature makes like the skin of a grape which is maybe a better analogy.
GRABER: Or the skin of a chicken.
EDWARDS: Yeah why not the skin of a chicken, that’s even more appropriate. You can edit that out.
GRABER: Sorry, David. His point, though, is that he can embed food powder in layers and turn it into skin. Which, just like human—or chicken or grape—skin holds liquids in and keeps other liquids out. Here’s the science of how it works.
EDWARDS: So food particles have a charge, like an electrical charge. And so they can be put together like a brick wall. And so what we do is we take food particles and we have between them polysaccharides
GRABER: Polysaccharides are just a bunch of sugar molecules bonded together
EDWARDS: And they’re either of a mushroom origin or algae origin and calcium. And so those three things form a gel and then we we create two or three layers of those. And so that’s really what gives the skin. It’s both edible but it’s also a real barrier.
TWILLEY: I have to say these Wikipearls are so much more fun when you imagine the fruity outer layer is human skin. But I had another important question: why are they called Wikipearls?
EDWARDS: Yeah that’s funny. Well of course now the marketing folks said don’t call it Wikipearls anymore but we call it Wikipearls, I call it Wikipearls, why? So I was really interested in creating a food form that was edited by the public and that would evolve in public hands. And so, and there was a couple ways that would happen. In principle you can package or surround any food form by pretty much any kind of food skin. And so it’s a really interesting design opportunity for all of us. So we made early on a sort of a distributor or kind of a vending machine that allowed you to say I want you know vanilla ice cream and a lemon skin or I want to you know a Fanta and a chocolate skin or whatever. And it then gets made and then that sort of pops out.
GRABER: Unfortunately you can’t design your own Wikipearls—David’s vending machine doesn’t exist right now. But you can buy these Wikipearls in hundreds of stores all around New England. So, does this do away with packaging? Well, not yet.
TWILLEY: Nope. If you go to the store looking for Wikipearls, you’ll find them sold in a box.
EDWARDS: And so if you ask why is the Wikipearl selling in a box right now in retail like Stop and Shop? Well it’s a combination of things. One there’s a need for or this interest to put marketing information on the outside of the container. And secondly there’s this issue of hygiene and so for the same reason that we’re wrapping potatoes and packaging grapes in plastic, there is a resistance to selling Wikipearls as you would sell grapes—as you used to sell grapes actually where you sort of asked people then to wash their grapes. And so you can wash these, you can drop them in water and rinse them and clean them so the surface does function in that fruit kind of way. But it does lead to this issue: well then how does this actually contribute to you know getting rid of plastic and food packaging.
GRABER: There are ways in theory that these Wikipearls could be sold in bulk.
EDWARDS: Absolutely and so in the same way that we sell Wikipearls here in the restaurant where you have a bin like you would have with apples, you can sell Wikipearls. And consumers then take the Wikipearls and drop them into a bag or here because it’s a frozen product we have a special thermos. Like you would get it at certain cafes and things like that for coffee. And people walk away with the fruit or with Wikipearls.
TWILLEY: And that is how Wikipearls are sold at Cafe ArtScience. But in the store, they’re in the box.
EDWARDS: Once again they’re being packaged in a redundant way really. Honestly as a founder and a creator of the technology it is extremely exciting to me to see the product consumed. So right now we’re so much at the beginning and I of all people have suffered a lot by my insistence on really extreme behavior change, now.
GRABER: David’s an inventor. And some of his products have been really successful but some haven’t quite caught on. Perhaps they were ahead of their time.
TWILLEY: But he has big dreams for his edible packaging empire. And it doesn’t stop with ice cream, which you know, is important but not necessarily essential—and also not really the biggest contributor to food packaging waste.
EDWARDS: The ultimate goal is to create the water bottle— the non plastic water bottle
GRABER: Unlike ice cream containers, disposable plastic drink bottles are a huge waste problem.
EDWARDS: As in the case of our wiki water, we create a shell around the skin, it’s actually edible. It’s made of zen protein and so it tastes like a corn chip basically. And so in the same way the coconut creates a shell, we can create a shell
TWILLEY: This corn chip wiki water bottle is not in production yet. But David’s hoping it will make its debut at a marathon in South Africa.
EDWARDS: It seems like a great way that edible bottles would first make it to market would be an athletic context. Because you can produce it, you really control it, I mean if you think of it is a real change in consumer behavior, much more direct you know, eating the bottle. But it makes so much sense. It’s such a waste problem in major athletic contexts. So that’s my hope.
GRABER: David has a vision of an all-edible food packaging world. But it’s not going to be easy to get there.
EDWARDS: We have sort of a triple challenge here. One is a scientific challenge.
TWILLEY: That part, he has a handle on.
EDWARDS: We know how to make non plastic packaging now and so that’s at this point relatively straightforward. We’re scaling up to sell nationwide.
TWILLEY: But that still leaves two more challenges. And they’re even trickier.
EDWARDS: The second is consumer behavior. We are used to throwing the plastic water bottle in the backseat and leaving it for the weekend and it’s hot and then putting in the fridge and just sort of a consumer behavior that is contingent on plastic packaging. And so changing consumer behavior is really difficult. And so it’s a collaborative thing so in a way the future of food is really going to be decided by the all of us. The third thing is that we have a trillion dollar food system and it fortunately works and we can’t have it not work. And yet that’s a very massive and inertial system and changing it is difficult. And while there’s a will in the industry to change, there are many, many, many reasons why it is resistant to change and not in a malicious way but just by virtue of its size. And so my point is that we are needing to create likely environments of retail and sort of modes of distribution that allow us to bring to consumer hands a product that is truly without packaging.
GRABER: And we’re just not there yet. But so here’s where we are. Food packaging was genuinely one of humanity’s most important creations. Putting food in pots and cans and bottles and boxes meant we could create large civilizations and wealth. We could move food around the world and we could eat a wide variety of flavors all year round.
TWILLEY: Some of us, anyway. But once food packaging went mainstream—and especially once plastic got involved—it’s created as many problems as its solved. So is David’s vision of a world filled with fully edible food packaging—is that the solution? Or is it much more simple. Does our food just need to strip off again?
DE LA FONTAINE: Mélissa de la Fontaine, I’m zero waste since 3 years. So like I’m trying to live a packaging free life since then.
GRABER: It’s Mélissa again. We said we’d come back to her. Mélissa’s not waiting for David’s edible packaging to reach Montreal. She’s trying to avoid packaging entirely. She brings bags and jars with her when she goes grocery shopping. And the occasional pillow case.
DE LA FONTAINE: Yeah I do. They’re really useful, yeah, I bring a pillow case. And it’s a gift I received and they are cupcakes on it so I think I find it’s really like perfect to go and buy bread.
TWILLEY: It’s taken her some time, but Mélissa managed to figure out how to buy almost everything she wants to eat unpackaged.
DE LA FONTAINE: I found like all the candies, like I knew when I started to be zero waste like I thought I couldn’t buy like the cinnamon hearts at St. Valentine or like the mini eggs in bulk, but I found them in bulk. So I can find many many many weird things in bulk.
GRABER: There are some exceptions, of course. Mélissa tries. But so far it’s impossible to live entirely without food packaging.
DE LA FONTAINE: For example I go buy soy milk in packaging. Also tofu but like I’m really hoping the new store there is going to open that is zero waste will have tofu in bulk, so I’m pretty excited…
TWILLEY: I love that the prospect of bulk tofu could make someone that excited. Still, the impressive thing is that Mélissa’s really made a dent in her food packaging use. And she’s not alone. This unpackaged thing is sort of a mini-movement. You might remember, a few weeks ago we asked you guys to tape yourselves if you were going to visit one of the packaging-free grocery stores that are popping up.
MARY BATTALORA: Hi, my name is Mary and I am parked out of In.gredients, or as my GPS says, in dot gredients. It’s a neighborhood grocer in Austin, Texas and I’m about to go check it out.
GRABER: Mary Battalora listens to Gastropod and lives in Texas, and she went to explore her local package-free grocery store for us.
BATTALORA: So I walked in and it just looks like kind of a normal grocery store, and there’s an aisle of just kind of like what you would see at um… like a Whole Foods, with nuts and pasta in little like plastic dispensaries. And then, oh this is interesting, there’s these dispensers of raw and organic coconut oil, non GMO canola oil, Napa valley organic apple cider vinegar. That’s interesting. Organic sesame oil. Balsamic vinegar and organic tamari. That’s cool. And it looks like there’s like little glass bottles that you can even put it in. (GLASS BOTTLES CLINKING) I’m going to get some organic apple cider vinegar. (UNSCREWING CAP, FILLING BOTTLE) So that was the closest thing to non-packaged that I feel like I’ve seen so far that I haven’t seen anywhere else. It looks like there’s a bunch of frozen meats. They’re definitely packaged in like vacuum-packed packages.
GRABER: Mary noticed that not quite everything came package-free. So she found one of the guys who worked there and asked why, and he directed her over to someone else.
EMPLOYEE: I’m not sure if he talked to you at all about our pivot away from all zero packaging, but really what motivated that was that we found that we were wasting a lot of food. You’d get 50 pound bag, you sell five pounds of it, then in a few months it goes stale. That’s way more food waste than would be created. Like the ones that were the worst for us were the gluten-free flours, which like, if you want coconut flour, you’re so happy to find it, but so few people want coconut flour that we ended up throwing away a lot of coconut flour.
TWILLEY: I’m trying really hard not laugh here. But this is where the ideal of zero-waste packaging runs into the practicality of food, which goes bad, and business, where you have to make money.
GRABER: My partner Tim was in the Netherlands for work, and he schlepped out to a store in Utrecht that had been billed as zero packaging. He told me it looked like an indie mini Whole Foods. And the guy who owns it told Tim that he doesn’t even call the store zero packaging. He said he can’t sell jam in bulk. And it’s a tough business. In fact, one other branch of the store that Tim had tried to visit was already closed.
TWILLEY: Yeah I sent my husband, Geoff, out to record for us too, but the unpackaged store in London—that had had to merge with a normal organic supermarket—it just couldn’t survive as a standalone.
GRABER: The business model of packaging-free stores is one thing—but the bigger issue is that food packaging is intrinsic to the way we live our lives today. It’s hard to even imagine a modern food system without it.
TWILLEY: But that doesn’t mean we can’t cut down, at least a little. Not all our food needs to come in individual little packets that we toss in the bin straight away. David’s edible packaging might help. And then there’s just using less.
GRABER: Mélissa knows her way of life might seem a little extreme. Not everyone is going to go zero waste. But she doesn’t think we all have to in order to make a difference.
DE LA FONTAINE: We’re the ones buying stuff and when we buy something we vote for it. So if people buy package stuff, they vote for more packaged stuff.
TWILLEY: That’s it for this week.
GRABER: Thanks this week to Gary Cross and Robert Proctor. They’re the authors of the book Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire.
TWILLEY: And thanks also to my lovely husband Geoff for giving me that book in the first place!
GRABER: Thanks also to David Edwards, founder of Le Laboratoire and Cafe ArtScience, and inventor of Wikipearls, which you can find in stores in New England. They’re sold as perfectly free non dairy frozen treats under the brand name Incredible Innovations.
TWILLEY: And an especially huge thanks to you guys for helping us explore the packaging free movement. Thanks to Becca Frasier for leading us to Mélissa de la Fontaine, and thanks to Mary Battalora for visiting in.gredients in Austin, Texas.
GRABER: We have links to everyone’s website and details on how you can get a hold of anything you’re hearing about on our website at gastropod.com. While you’re there, check out our support page! It’s filled with lots of ways to help the show—donations and more.
TWILLEY: And share your adventures in packaging, and trying to use less of it—we’d love to hear your experiences and tips. We’re on Twitter @gastropodcast and on Facebook as Gastropod, and you can always email us at [email protected]
GRABER: Come back in two weeks for some fried chicken!
TWILLEY: Is that a bird? Do you have a bird?
DE LA FONTAINE: I do have a bird.
GRABER: That’s great.
TWILLEY: Yeah, it’s awesome! It’s great that you have no trouble buying bird seed in bulk, I guess.
DE LA FONTAINE: No, no, it’s really you know it’s also a zero waste bird also.
GRABER: I bet the bird does make a little bit of waste.
DE LA FONTAINE: Yeah but it’s like the same waste as I do so it’s fine, it’s going to the same place, right?