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Plastic Growing In Corn Fields

A durable 'natural' plastic made from corn rather than petroleum is ready for commercial production and use in items from clothing to food containers.

A partnership of Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical Co. says its plastics and fibers made from renewable resources perform as well as those made from nonrenewable hydrocarbons and can be produced for about the same cost.

"To think that what is grown in a field can now be converted into plastic is really quite amazing," said Jim Stoppert, president and chief executive of Cargill Dow Polymers, the 50-50 joint venture between the two companies.

Cargill is among companies that already use corn to produce ethanol, a gasoline additive touted as reducing reliance on oil, but which relies on federal subsidies to remain competitive.

Cargill and Dow have invested more than $300 million to build a new plastic manufacturing plant in Blair, Neb., and continue product development. The technology has been in development for about 10 years.

By reducing reliance on petroleum, producers hope to avoid being whipsawed by rapid swings in oil prices. Just this past year, oil prices have doubled on world markets, putting a squeeze on profits from producing plastic.

But plastic makers could find themselves at the mercy of volatile grain markets, with prices rising if production is decimated by drought, as in 1988, of widespread floods, as in 1993.

The plastics factory is to open at the end of 2001 and will produce more than 300 million pounds annually of the plant-based plastic, called polylactide or PLA.

However, farmers could reap huge benefits from the technology in the future, and additional jobs could be created in rural areas as products from renewable resources are developed, Stoppert said.

The production process, trademarked as NatureWorks, enables the company to capture the carbon removed from the air by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon is stored in plant starches, which can be broken down into natural plant sugars, which then are used to make the PLA.

CDP now uses sugars from corn to make its new plastic because it is abundant and inexpensive. The company's researchers are working on techniques to use the process to create plastics from many other plants, including wheat, sugar beets and agricultural waste such as corn husks and wood pulp.

Clothing containing the new plastic is wrinkle resistant, drapes better and is more comfortable because it wicks moisture away from the body, Stoppert said. Shirts containing PLA already are being worn in Japan and have been well-received, he said.

When used for packaging, the plant plastic is fully degradable. The environment also benefits because production of PLA uses 30 percent to 50 percent less fossil fuel than is required to make conventional plastic resins.

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