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By now, most of us have been programmed to recycle. I don’t really think about it anymore, except to notice when recycling bins aren’t around and I have to sheepishly chuck a water bottle or yogurt container in the trash. Actually, I feel guilty simply for buying bottled water, as I should really be carrying around a reusable water bottle with me. Plastic bottles, mostly from bottled water, comprise a huge amount of waste all across the globe. In 2008, the European Union, which is generally regarded as more environmentally friendly than the U.S., shipped over 13 million tons of plastic bottles to landfills. In 2012, Americans generated 32 million tons of plastic waste. Here in the U.S., plastic accounts for about 13% of solid waste, largely because only about 9% of plastics are recycled. So if recycling isn’t the answer, or at least not the only answer, what else can we do?
Here’s a radical idea: let’s eat those plastic water bottles.
It’s an idea that’s so crazy, it just might work. Or so thinks Skipping Rocks Lab, which recently won a 2014 Lexus Design Award. The Lab’s founders, students at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, use something they call “Ooho,” an edible gel that can hold water thanks to a cooking method called spherification, which involves creating a caviar-like sphere out of liquids. Pretty much any liquid can be made into a sphere (or more commonly, a bunch of tiny spheres), using this method. Folks who have watched Top Chef may have seen something like this on episodes featuring contestants who practice molecular gastronomy.
The difference here is that the spheres need to be bigger than caviar if they’re going to contain enough water to drink. That’s where Ooho comes in. The design students who developed it use a double membrane and frozen water, which allows an Ooho sphere to contain about one liter of water. The double membrane also prevents contamination and allows for the possibility of putting a label between the two membranes. The membrane is also much stronger than it looks — one of the designers likens it to the “skin of a fruit,” and they’ve made spheres so thick that they could actually bounce.
The gel enclosing the water is made from calcium chloride and brown algae, and while it’s safe to eat, it’s understandable that people might not want to. But that’s not a problem — the sphere is biodegradable. In its current incarnation, it’s “very easy to make” (you can even make them at home), but there are a few hurdles, such as the one-use nature of the spheres — there’s no way to reseal them. And despite the strength of the membrane, if the spheres were to be mass produced, they’d need to be stronger to withstand shipping, as well as contain foods or liquids other than water. And they’re a little slurpy to use, but hey, we’re all willing to dribble for the sake of the environment, right?