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Can an edible water bottle replace plastic bottles?

Wednesday - 5/7/2014, 7:17am  ET

A European design team may have a replacement for the plastic water bottle. The Ooho is an edible water 'bottle' made using sphereification. (WTOP Screen Shot/Courtesy Rodrigo García González)

WASHINGTON -- An innovative design and a creative concept could be the answer to one of the world's most troubling environmental problems: plastic pollution.

The U.S. uses an estimated 50 billion water bottles each year, and 75 percent of them end up in landfills, where they take an estimated 450 years to break down.

Manufacturing water bottles is another environmental headache. The Earth Policy Institute reports the U.S. bottled-water industry uses roughly 50 million barrels of oil each year to make, refrigerate and transport bottles of water.

Renee Sharp, research director at the Environmental Working Group, says concerns about water-bottle waste don't stop there.

"Most plastic doesn't really ever break down; it just gets chewed up into smaller and smaller bits," she says, saying plastic has been found in the stomachs of birds, fish and other marine life.

"When you put that all together, it is creating this really, really massive environmental problem."

But a European design team poses a question that could chip away at plastic pollution: What if you could have your water bottle and eat it, too?

Rodrigo García González and his team at Skipping Rocks Lab recently won a 2014 Lexus Design Award for the Ooho -- an edible water bottle.

How It Works

The Ooho is made using sphereification, a culinary process that shapes liquid into spheres. The water in the Ooho is contained in a gelatinous membrane, which looks much more like a sack than a bottle.

González tells Smithsonain he and his team take a frozen ball of water and dip it into a calcium chloride solution, which forms a gel-like layer.

Calcium chloride (CaCl2) is a salt of calcium and chloride. It's considered a "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) substance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is an approved food additive in the European Union.

González and his team then soak the ball in another solution, made of brown algae extract, to reinforce the membrane. He says the membranes are safe to eat and don't taste like much of anything.

Are Edible Water Bottles the Future?

The Environmental Working Group's Sharp says she doesn't know for certain whether water-filled membranes, such as the Ooho, are the future of water consumption, but says out-of-the-box thinking and creative solutions never hurt in the quest to clean up the planet.

"It definitely has the potential to solve some of the problems that we're seeing. If it's truly edible and it's truly safe … this really could be a real replacement," she says.

However, Sharp says more needs to be considered before we embark on a water-membrane revolution. She says there are plenty of approved food additives on the FDA's GRAS list that the Environmental Working Group, and other organizations, question, due to a lack of data. Therefore, she wants to know more about the safety of the additives used.

She also questions the practicality of the "bottles" if there is a limit on the membrane's size.

"If they can just be little bite-size blobs, well, you might need a lot of them to make a whole liter of water, so it might not be adopted by people," she says.

Furthermore, González's Ooho uses the freezer to form the membrane balls, which Sharp says requires energy use.

"Would some of the greenhouse-gas emission concerns be ameliorated if you weren't creating the water bottles, but then had to freeze all of the ice, which actually takes quite a bit of energy?"

Sharp says the best way to curb plastic-bottle pollution is to filter your own tap water at home and carry it in a stainless-steel bottle -- at least for now.

"I think the answer is, ‘Wow, what a creative solution. It could really solve a lot of problems.' But we also need to make sure that we're not just saying, ‘thumbs up,' and not looking at all of the other concerns that may be related, as well."

Yuka Yoneda, New York managing editor of Inhabitat, a website dedicated to green design and innovation, says after seeing the design from González and his team, she decided to give the edible water bottle a try.

"I wondered if I could re-create something similar at home," says Yoneda, 31.

The process she tried varies slightly from the one González performed; she used sodium alginate and calcium lactate, instead of calcium chloride.

Yoneda says all of the ingredients she used in her membrane bottles are derived from natural substances and are commonly found in foods.

While she imagines the substitutes are similar, she says the homemade version may not hold up as long as González's version. Her "bottles" were not strong enough to be tossed around in a purse all day.

"The Ooho, on the other hand, has an extra membrane that makes it durable enough to be manhandled quite a bit," Yoneda says.

The future of the edible water bottle, at home and on the shelves, is anyone's guess.

"I think it's a possibility if the Ooho, or something similar, were to be sold in stores," Yoneda says. "I don't think most people would make their own edible water bottles at home on a regular basis ... they could simply fill a reusable thermos, instead."

Explore Edible Water Bottles

Watch how the Ooho! water bottle works:

Make your own edible water bottle at home with Inhabitat's Yuka Yoneda:

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