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Thinking out of the bottle

Awareness concerning plastic bottles and their environmental impact vary with different people. Most of us fail to grasp the big picture, that the world at large is continually nudged to an inhospitable place by our society’s industrial excesses. The manufacturing of non-biodegradable plastic bottles is among those that contribute to some of our more enduring waste products. TEDed has an interesting video online that narrates the story of 3 disposed bottles; spoiler alert: two of them have bad endings—

4We start with their origin, these bottles are born through chemically bonding oil and gas molecules to form what are called monomers, which are then bonded into long polymer chains to form plastic pellets. They are then melted in manufacturing plants and injected into molds to form those small, durable containers to hold water or your choice of beverage. It would only take you a few minutes to a few seconds for someone to gulp down that bottled refreshment before it is discarded, fated to linger a thousand years before decomposing. Enter our 3 bottles; the first one gets dumped (along with tons of its kind) in a landfill with other garbage. These plastics are then compressed as more and more junk are piled up on top. Rainwater then flows through the waste and absorbs highly toxic, water soluble compounds called Leachate, which can move into groundwater, soil and streams to poison ecosystems and harm wildlife.

Bottle 2 on the other hand, finds itself flowing along a river and out to sea. It then wanders the ocean currents before being sucked into great ocean gyres. These are areas were millions of pieces of plastic debris are accumulated by underwater current. Birds and other sea creatures mistake the brightly colored bits as food causing them to either die or bring the contaminant higher up the food chain until it reaches back to the food we eat.

Bottle 3 ends up in a better place, it is picked up by a truck and brought to plant to be squeezed into a block along with other plastic. They are then shredded, washed, melted and then turned back into pellets to be recycled into new products. But what if there are other alternatives we can explore, like replacing plastic bottles altogether to eliminate the hazards brought upon by bottles 1 and 2. Introducing “Ooho!”, the edible water bottle.

“When you buy water,” starts Ooho! co-founder Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez in his Solve for X talk, “90% of the cost is not for the water, it’s for the bottle.” He goes on to say that the most shocking fact for him is you actually need 7 liters of water and 152 centiliters of oil just to produce one plastic bottle. He also presented data that shows plastic bottle consumption increasing worldwide. This prompted Gonzalez and the other Ooho! co-founders Pierre Paslier and Guillaume Couche to create an extremely cheap, edible, and non-biodegradable membrane that would also encapsulate water, removing plastic from the equation.

Inspiration for the concept came from how nature behaves—that a form of membrane can efficiently hold liquids like in fruits or even cells. The Ooho! membrane is made up of seaweeds or alginate mixed with calcium and water to create a gel in a process called Spherification—a culinary technique of shaping liquid into spheres, a method originally discovered by Unilever back in the 1950s. You can either eat the liquid sphere or bite a hole through and sip its contents before throwing it away, the membrane should safely decompose in record time compared to plastics.

There are still problems left to solve for this ingenious idea to be applicable on the mass market. One is the problem of sealing, once opened it cannot be closed again. Ooho! is now developing stronger membranes and larger ones as packaging to hold smaller spheres inside. They are also developing the concept of double layering to insert labels in the middle. The three co-founders are now making use of their degrees from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College of London in running academic activities along with their start-up (Skipping Rocks Lab), with support from the Climate-KIC Accelerator—a European Institute of Innovation and Technology. The trio also released the recipe online under the creative commons license; numerous of videos from different countries had already replicated the technique to millions of views. It is simple innovations like these that help pave the way for our civilization to make better use of our resources, and end practices that are proving harmful and inefficient in the long run.

  • Jude Bustamante

    I still fancy glass bottles of a past era. I find my drink tastier than those sold in PET. I guess with that cost, without affecting the retail price, cost for taste material was tapered to shoulder the PET.