Biodegradable plastic made from plants, not oil, is emerging

ByABC News
December 25, 2008, 7:48 PM

— -- Here is one word about an up-and-coming innovation in plastics: cornfields.

Bioplastics most of which are now made from corn are poised to grab a bigger share of the plastics market as concerns about the environment and U.S. dependence on foreign oil promote alternatives to products made from petrochemicals.

They already are showing up in a variety of products, such as plastic gift cards, food containers and cellphone casings, says Steve Davies, a spokesman for NatureWorks.

NatureWorks, based in Minnetonka, Minn., developed one of the first plant-based plastics with the creation of a resin technology called Ingeo. Its Ingeo plastic pellets are used to make clothing, diapers and food-packaging material.

After doubling the size of its manufacturing plant in Nebraska, NatureWorks will have the capacity to produce up to 300 million pounds of pellets a year.

Research by NatureWorks, a subsidiary of agribusiness giant Cargill and Teijin of Japan, indicates a future market demand of up to 50 billion pounds of bioplastics a year within two to five years. That would represent about a 10% share of the global plastics market.

Among the first companies to turn to biodegradable plastic in a big way is Naturally Iowa, an organic dairy that makes milk and water bottles out of pellets from NatureWorks, says William Horner, Naturally Iowa's CEO.

"This is one of the greatest hidden sources of replacing petroleum that we've got," Horner says.

"The cost of the bottles is 5% to 10% higher than regular plastic bottles, but it's worth it both environmentally and economically in the long run," he says. "When you compare the cost for disposal of plastic to the cost of disposal of a compostable bottle, all of a sudden the cost levels out."

Although the plastic is biodegradable, disposing of it is not necessarily as simple as throwing your bioplastic bottles onto your backyard compost heap, says Betty McLaughlin, executive director of the non-profit Container Recycling Institute.