"You promise this won't kill me?"
I'm eyeing the clear packet of hot chocolate—marked confidential & proprietary—I just dropped into a mug of steaming water. As I stir, bits of the plasticlike wrapper float to the top. The cocoa creeps out in waves. And then, in an instant, the remnants of the casing simply . . . disappear.
"It's safe," assures the man to my side, who's holding a cup of the same. "Go ahead, try it."
"You first," I reply. We both chuckle—and take a sip.
Soon we may all be drinking what CEO P. Scott Bening and his materials-science shop MonoSol are serving. The company's water-soluble wrappers can be found encasing everything from clothing to pesticides to detergent, such as the Tide Pods Procter & Gamble will launch in the U.S. this month with a $150 million marketing push. "Our films are already in your laundry room and kitchen," says Bening, between drinks. Now he wants to bring them to your mouth.
Deep within its two northwest Indiana labs, MonoSol has been developing edible films that are soluble, biodegradable, even flavorable. "A blow-up view would kind of look like a brick of Ramen noodles," says Jon Gallagher, MonoSol's new product development manager. "Once there's water penetration, the molecular bonds loosen up." Until that point, the material is strong enough to serve as packaging for food. It's a wrapper until it isn't.
MonoSol just started shopping the tech to major food brands, so it's at least a year or two away from appearing on shelves. The company's earnings topped $100 million last year, but Bening believes its food business could be massive: "If we get our films in just 10% of the [$22 billion] instant-coffee market, or in the oatmeal or hot-chocolate markets, we could more than triple the size of our business." Just as significant is what MonoSol would be reducing. There are roughly 76 tons of packaging waste added to U.S. landfills each year. Boosting the bottom line is great, but Bening is equally focused on fundamentally changing the way we consume food and drink. Wrappers that dissolve during prep wouldn't end up in dumps—they would end up in your meal. Persuading you to put them there is what will require the real science.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.