Cornstarch straws and sugarcane tableware may sound like something out of a Willy Wonka remake, but they're not.
These sweet-sounding products are made of polylactide polymers, or PLAs, a plant-based alternative to traditional polyethylene-based plastics. Retailers and foodservice providers have begun to replace PET plastics with PLAs. And a Florida company, BioBag, sells PLA trash, lawn and leaf, and shopping bags as well as garden film.
"There's an increased interest in the market as people relate plastic packaging to oil," says Ann Tucker, public affairs and communications director for NatureWorks, a Minneapolis-based producer of plastics from renewable resources. Tucker and others say that as the cost of oil continues to rise, retailers are searching for sustainable alternatives.
"For the first time, we're seeing the cost of the plant-based materials coming close to the cost of the petroleum counterparts, because of the rising cost of petroleum," says Dan Mishkind, principal of Pure Design Co., a Leverett, Mass.-based packaging and marketing materials company.
The change began years before oil hit $70 per barrel, but recent announcements by large retailers and food producers may have officially signaled the shift.
Last November, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club switched to PLA clamshell containers—115 million supplied annually by NatureWorks—for cut fruit, herbs, strawberries and brussels sprouts. Wild Oats, Del Monte, Newman's Own, Biota and Mrs. Fields are also among NatureWorks' U.S. clients.
Mishkind points out another advantage. "Since all plastics will leach under the right circumstances, especially heat, at least with plant-based plastics, like PLA, the only thing leaching will be the cornstarch, as opposed to toxic chemicals found in petroleum based plastics."
The containers, along with many other plant-based products, are compostable. But manufacturers' representatives say the term pertains to commercial composters, where heat and moisture are controlled. Some may or may not break down in home composters, depending on the conditions and the expertise of the person doing the composting.
In any event, the use of PLAs is drawing attention.
"First off, any step in the right direction is a good step," says Mishkind. "There is no completely sustainable solution, only efforts that reduce our footprint on the earth incrementally. And nothing is black or white.
"For instance, many of the plant-based plastics, since they are not organically grown, still rely on petroleum inputs in their farming production, so even choosing a corn-based plastic doesn't eliminate petroleum usage completely."
So how exactly does a retail operation decide what types of PLAs to buy?
"We're working on that this very second," says Michelle Walker, Wild Oats' manager of standards. Among the considerations are energy usage, byproducts and raw materials. "There are so many variables. You really have to weigh them all out."
Mishkind echoes the sentiment and adds: "You need to look at the bigger picture, and try to benchmark:
- Nonrenewable materials content;
- Energy and water usage in both manufacturing and transportation;
- Air emissions, including greenhouse gases, in manufacturing and transportation;
- Toxicity and impact on both workers and community near manufacturing;
- Waste generation; and
- End-of-life recovery (recycling or environmentally friendly disposal)."
While stocking sustainable containers may be more costly to begin with, Walker believes eventually, customers will ask for the option.
The decision also has something to do with image.
"If they're in the natural foods industry, it's critical," says Anne Reeves, a founding partner of Shimokochi-Reeves, a Los Angeles firm specializing in strategic visual branding. "In other areas, it's not of prime importance."
But, she says, a popular beauty products client specified that its containers be recyclable. "It's a marketable point."
When World Centric, a nonprofit fair trade and eco-store, formed in Palo Alto, Calif., its founders hoped to find a niche for bio tableware in the Bay Area, says Executive Director Asseem Das. Now, the two-year-old organization is growing, largely because of Web orders from across the country.
Most sales are for tableware, plates, trays, cups and carryout containers made from sugarcane fibers. Das says the products, an alternative to Styrofoam, are safe to use in the microwave and in conventional ovens. "We've tested them in the oven, up to 350 degrees for 20 minutes." And, the sugarcane and paper pulp-based tableware breaks down in a hot compost at home.
The cornstarch straws World Centric sells in boxes of 400 "look just like plastic ones," Das says. "There's no way to tell the difference."
BioBag's vice president, Terry Phillips, can say the same about his company's trash bags. Waterproof and free from genetically modified organisms, the two differences from a PET bag are that BioBags "breathe" and they will break down in natural environmental conditions or commercial composting.
The bags start out as corn waste, which is then converted into pellets that look a lot like tapioca. From there, he says, the pellets can become anything from a trash bag to a sheet of garden film that will decompose in about 90 days.
Corn and sugarcane aren't the only two plants used for PLAs.
Scientists at Cornell University are experimenting with banana stems, orange peels and pineapple leaves.
"It illustrates there are other things you can do with carbon," says NatureWorks' Tucker. "They're actually experimenting with fermentation."
That gives decision makers more to ponder.
"It's a long, twisted road, but you have to start somewhere," says Wild Oats' Walker. "My job is finding out where to start."
Lori Ozzello is a writer and editor in Greeley, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 7/p. 14, 17