Some late-night hunger pains can only be appeased by one thing: instant ramen. But as all ramen aficionados know, it’s not only the noodles and mysterious spice packets that count—the packaging itself forms much of the experience. A good meal-in-a-bowl should have a worthy bowl to go along with it.
Part of the problem is the lack of any standardized design in the ramen market. Ramen containers come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. They’re littered with excess graphics that call out the special features of the freeze-dried goods within. In a word, they’re messy.
Doesn’t ramen deserve better? Designers Anna Glansén and Hanna Billqvist of Tomorrow Machine think so. They’ve designed a clean, eco-friendly version that they’ve dubbed the "sustainable expanding bowl." It’s made from 100% bio-based and biodegradable material, and it hardens into an eating vessel for soups, noodles, and pretty much anything with a "just add water" label on it.
The project was a collaboration with Innventia, a global research and development group that works with packaging materials. Together, they created a green solution to our ramen obsession. "It’s incredibly exciting to work with scientists and be able to take part in the process of researching before a material is completely developed," Billqvist tells Co. Design. "We as designers are then able to control the material’s properties—so we can create a product from a material that is fully optimized for what the product is meant to do."
How does it work? The empty, pleated container gets flattened to save space when it’s shipped. As you pour hot water into the small hole at the top, the envelope gets activated and the carton uncoils into a proper takeout box. Once the water begins to drop in temperature, the sides of the package become rigid and stable—a guarantee that you can dine on your noodles in exactly the way that Hollywood thinks you should.
One problem: The necessary step of adding hot water limits the amount of ways you can customize your ramen. The container comes pre-"shrunk," barring access to the contents within—presumably, once it’s commercialized, the design would be modified so that fixins could be stored inside and made retrievable. (The container in its current form is useful for noodles or rice, but to accommodate food with multiple components, such as ramen with its noodles and spice packets or mac 'n cheese, the design would need an update.) But the package’s functionality is almost beside the point. The project was an opportunity for Innventia to demonstrate the virtues of their experimental "mechano-active" material.
And, of course, part of the success lies in the involvement of Tomorrow Machine and the design energies they brought to the table. As Billqvist explains, "We wanted to show what it’s possible to do with the newly developed biodegradable material, and what benefits it will have for the industry. The collaboration began as a project to see what researchers and designers can achieve by working together."
The designers are currently trying to market the prototype and hope that they’ll be able to put it into production soon.