Packaging to Protect the Environment

Cargill Inc. has created a new biodegradable packaging material from farm crops. The material could help limit the amount of disposable packaging that continues to pile up in the nation’s landfills.

The company, a farm commodities processor, will open a pilot factory in early 1992 to begin producing lactic-acid polymers from corn and other crops. Because the material is clear, degrades like paper and is not readily soluble in water, Cargill hopes it can start replacing packaging made from long-lasting petrochemicals.

“You hold this material up and you’d swear it was normal plastic, but it’s not — it’s made from renewable resources,” said Paul Dienhart, a Cargill spokesperson. “It’s an exciting project we’re hoping will work out. It’ll be good for the country if it does.”

The material can be produced in sheets or as a foam and can be molded for many different uses, he said. It also can be used as a coating for other forms of packaging, such as cardboard.

The term “biodegradable” has been tainted by earlier efforts in the 1980s to produce trash bags, Dienhart said. Although they were called biodegradable, the bags ended up leaving pieces of petroleum-based plastic behind when they decomposed.

“Through composting, however, this new material will leave no plastic residue, and you’ll end up with stuff you can spade right back into the garden,” he said.

This new plastic is not a replacement for materials that can be recycled, Dienhart pointed out, because recycling is still a better alternative to composting.

“But if this country makes a commitment to composting as an alternative to landfills, then a product like this has a lot of potential,” he said. “The big question is: Where is this country headed on the composting issue?”

After starting up its pilot plant, Cargill will determine the feasibility of large-scale production. The pilot program will help determine the cost to produce the new material, Dienhart said, and how much interest there is in this alternative.

“We’ve already received a number of calls from potential customers, so we’re pretty sure there’s plenty of interest out there,” he said. “But are people willing to pay a little more for it?”

Cargill has been researching lactic-acid polymers for the past 10 years. Other companies also have been studying these polymers, searching for a reliable plastic that is biodegradable and doesn’t require petroleum in its production.

“It will help if this country starts emphasizing composting in all forms,” Dienhart added. “That is the key to how useful this technology is going to be.”

Tip/Stat — The primary ingredient in Cargill’s new packaging material is lactic acid — a syrupy liquid created by fermentation and found in sour milk, molasses and various fruits and vegetables.

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