Goodness gracious, great balls of water

Categories: News and previews

Why Ooho’s edible, bio-degradable balls of water offer the prospect of a less plastic-reliant future

Words: Kay Plunkett Hogge

How many times as an adult do you experience something genuinely new? You will if you bite on an Ooho.

Created by Pierre Paliser, Rodrigo García González and their team at Imperial College, Ooho is a new kind of packaging—affordable, bio-degradable, even edible. And, in a world so reliant on plastics that can take anywhere from 400 to 1,000 years to degrade away, it is nothing less than revolutionary.

So, on a crisply freezing December morning, I set off to Borough Market to meet Pierre and Rodrigo, and find out all about it.  Borough is the perfect place for their showcase. It has long shown a commitment to reducing waste and recycling.

More than platitudes
Says the Market’s director of development, Kate Howell: “Borough Market’s approach to waste goes much further than the usual environmental platitudes. Our mission is to put every leftover piece of food or packaging to the best possible use—to see raw materials where others see refuse.

“None of the Market’s rubbish goes to landfill. All cardboard, paper, plastic, glass or wood is recycled. Borough’s partnership with the charity Plan Zheroes means that surplus produce from many of the stalls ends up being distributed to local charities, rather than being thrown in the bin. All remaining food waste, around 8,640 litres per week, is sent to an anaerobic digestion plant—a facility that uses microorganisms to break down organic material and turn it into power, fertiliser and water.

“These simple measures, together with the use of low energy lighting and the collection of rainwater to feed the plants in the Market Hall, all make a difference, but they are only a small part of a bigger picture.”

Burst out laughing
At first sight, the Oohos look strange, almost alien. One is the size of an eyeball, the other more reminiscent of, well, a breast implant. Not one to be put off, I put the smaller one straight into my mouth and popped it like a cherry tomato. And burst out laughing.

Once you get over the shock of the sensation—the minty freshness of the water and the unusual idea of swallowing the packaging—you can’t help it. I lit up like a Christmas tree. This is a mouthful of happy. One by one, everyone there who tried one had the same reaction, laughing and grinning like kids in a candy store.

The larger one—the breast implant—is a trickier proposition; you have to bite it and suck out the water. Rodrigo and Pierre tell me that they are working on something a little more user-friendly, mentioning that they may create thicker, peel-able coating that you strip like an orange. This makes sense. Right now, portability is an issue. Globe-shaped objects do not pack efficiently, and the vulnerability of the packaging means that the risk of it bursting all over your laptop and phone in your bag would be a worry.

But. Rodrigo and Pierre are definitely onto something.

A glimpse of the future
Their container is made from distillated algae—brown seaweed to you and me. It’s a seaweed that grows all over the world, meaning you don’t have to ship raw materials very far to make the packaging. It’s also a plant so prolific that, were Ooho to replace every plastic bottle on the planet with its packaging, it would only use 0.3 per cent of the world’s brown seaweed. Every region on earth would be able to make these things self-sustainably.

With just one machine, the current technology enables the production of 100,000 Oohos per day. Eventually, retail outlets could presumably have their own smaller machines to fill the containers with juices, shakes and smoothies, perhaps even cocktails and shots.

If reducing our reliance on plastics and petrochemicals is the holy grail of science and tech, Ooho is an exciting step towards it. I left Borough that morning feeling that I might just have glimpsed the future.