Outside the Box: The Story of Food Packaging

The invention of food packaging is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It may seem hard to imagine today, but the first clay pots made the great civilizations of the ancient world possible, while paper’s first use, long before it became a surface for writing, was to wrap food. But packaging’s proliferation, combined with the invention of plastics, has become one of our biggest environmental headaches. In this episode, we explore the surprising history of how our food got dressed—and why and how we might want to help it get naked again.

In Packaged Pleasures: How Technology and Marketing Revolutionized Desire, co-authors Gary Cross and Robert Proctor lead us through millennia of human ingenuity applied to the problem of how to contain food, from the clay pot, which transformed communal food reserves into wealth-generating private property, to the much more recent breakthrough in resealability represented by the Mason jar. That’s right, today’s hipster drinking vessel started life as the world’s first screw-lid container. Through the story of how soda got its pop and the invention of the cereal box, Cross and Proctor help us understand how recent mass-market food packaging is—and how it has revolutionized our relationship with food.

cereal_boxes 460

Alongside these social and dietary transformations came an environmental nightmare. In the United States, the E.P.A. has found that a third of municipal solid waste—the stuff that goes into landfills—is packaging. And two-thirds of that once held food. But can we live without food packaging? We meet inventor David Edwards of Le Laboratoire and Café ArtScience in Cambridge, MA, who has developed and commercialized a form of edible packaging that keeps yogurt or ice-cream contained for fifty days, even after being rinsed under the tap.

Wikipearl box thermos and in half 460

We explore the science behind his invention, but also the challenges that mean that, for now, his edibly packaged products are still sold in a box. And, with listener help, we explore the burgeoning “unpackaged” movement, in which individuals and small businesses are trying to reduce waste by reinventing the process of grocery shopping. Listen in now, and you’ll never look at a can of soup or a bag of spinach the same way again.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted July 6, 2016 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    A Florida brewery just created a test batch of fully edible six-pack rings, and they’re planning to scale up production to cover their production run of 400,000 cans per month. All we need, it seems, is for other breweries and soda makers to make the switch, too.

  2. Erin
    Posted July 6, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I have always thought that biodegradable 6-pack rings would be a great advancement. What would have to happen for these to be a more standard form of packaging?

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