The Incredible, Edible. . . Plastic?

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An article in the July 14 edition of the Wall Street newspaper, “Research to Make Plastic Edible Wins Prize,” featured a duo of researchers who have used microbes and chemicals to break down end-of-life plastics and turn them into edible foods. In fact, the notion of edible plastics has been floating around in university bioengineering labs and startups for almost 10 years.

The first news I found appeared in Fast business on March 25, 2014. He described the Ooho, “a blog-like vessel that holds water in a double membrane using ‘spherication’, the technique for shaping liquids into spheres first developed times in the labs in 1946. “So the idea is even older than me! Ooho was created by three London-based industrial design students.

A list of 18 alternative food packaging inventions, many of which are edible, was published in the May 24, 2018 issue of Food tank. Strangely, Ooho wasn’t on the list, but it did feature an array of intriguing edible wrappers and cutlery. They included Apeel, created by Apeel Sciences, a plant-derived material found in peels and skins that can coat fruits and vegetables to extend their shelf life. Los Angeles-based Coolhaus wraps its ice cream sandwiches in edible potato wafer paper wrapper. The water soluble pods developed by Poppits, a Florida-based startup, were designed to help reduce the need for plastic toothpaste tubes and caps. The elimination of toothpaste tubes has been an idea since around 2016 and several alternatives are in the works at various companies, including major brands. Seaweed seems to be very popular as a base material for edible packaging, but of course seaweed is edible as is.

Two others caught my attention. One is Tomorrow Machine, developer of This Too Shall Pass, in which packages have the same lifespan as the content they contain. An example noted in Food tank was an edible wrapper for wax-coated sugar oil that opens like an egg and then melts under water. The other is WikiCells, edible skins that wrap foods or liquids in a protective barrier using various “natural food particles held together by nutrient ions” to build a completely edible peel as an alternative to plastic packaging.

Ting Lu, professor of bioengineering,
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The latest invention comes from the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where bioengineering professor Ting Lu just received the Future Insight 2021 award with Stephen Techtmann, associate professor of biological sciences at the Michigan Technological University. The pair received € 1 million ($ 1.19 million) in research funding from Merck KGaA, a science and technology company operating in the healthcare, life sciences and electronics industries. The company is headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany; its American division is called EMD Group.

The Future Insight Prize winners have created “revolutionary technology with the potential to generate a safe and sustainable food source while reducing environmental damage associated with plastic waste and traditional farming methods,” according to Merck. Lu and Techtmann are recognized for their work, which uses microbes and chemicals to break down end-of-life plastics and turn them into edible foods.

Lu’s research in Illinois focuses on synthetic microbial biology. “By combining experimentation and modeling, my lab is harnessing genetic circuitry designed to program the functionality of microbial cells for a variety of new biotechnology applications, such as food production in this case,” Lu said.

Techtmann is an environmental microbiologist who studies microbial communities in various natural environments, according to information from Merck. His laboratory studies how complex microbial communities can cooperate to fulfill functions of industrial interest.

With the award, Lu and Techtmann plan to continue their research to enable a fully organic solution for converting PET plastic, increasing the biosafety and health-promoting content of food and further expanding the technology to other plastics or other types of waste for food production.

Lu said to the Wall Street newspaper in the article of July 14, “Plastic is a mixture of different elements including carbon, oxygen, hydrogen. Food is a radically different type of material in terms of appearance; However, from a chemical point of view, it is also made up of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and other elements.

All these experiences over the years prove that plastic is do not toxic, as is our good friend and industry colleague Allan Griff always reminds us. The fact that we can make plastic packaging from plants and food and then eat the packaging reminds us that everything on earth is made from the same types of natural elements.

There are some amazing innovations coming out of university bioengineering labs and startups. Now comes the real challenge: transforming these innovations into products that can be used by millions of people around the world. I have a hunch – even though I haven’t had time to research – that these 18 listed companies Food tank maybe three years ago they are still grappling with this thing and at best have found a niche market. As I am constantly reminded, it takes patience and money.

We are going to watch.


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