Corn - it's not just in your food, it's in your packaging

Last spring, in a coffee shop in Berkeley, I saw an amazing thing. It was a cup made from corn. The information on the cup says that it is made from corn, is environmentally sustainable, and 100% compostable.i-d4258bc4906a427034a658c6fdeee65b-corn_cup.jpg

My fellow ScienceBloggers have written several articles lately about corn in fast food (here, here, and here), but I'm not sure they realized that corn is used for more than fast food.  Corn is also used to make the packaging.

The company that made this cup is called Fabri-Kal.  The cup is one of many compostable packaging items from Fabri-Kal's Greenware line.  Interestingly, although the cup says that it's made of corn, that point isn't so clear from Fabri-Kal's web site


Fabri-Kal says that their serving containers are made with NatureWorks® biopolymer. 

NatureWorks® biopolymer is a polylactic acid resin derived from plants.  According to NatureWorks, the company that makes the polymer: 

The technology to produce NatureWorks biopolymer allows abundant, annually renewable resources like ordinary field corn to replace finite ones (petroleum) in everyday products, such as food packaging, bottles, disposable serviceware, labels and sheet.

The technology to produce NatureWorks® biopolymer essentially harvests the starch stored in natural plant sugars. The sugar is then fermented into lactic acid, which is used to create a clear plastic called polylactide (PLA) that can be shaped into a variety of innovative products such as bottles, containers, trays, film, packaging and fiber (branded as Ingeo™).

The polymer is used to make a surprising number of items including T-shirts, coffee cups, clothing, and socks!  And all these are made out of starch.  Starch is fermented to lactic acid (by some kind of microbe, I suppose), and the lactic acid is used to make clear plastics.  According to NatureWorks this process uses 62-68% less fossil fuel and reduces greenhouse gas emissions 80-90% compared to traditional plastics.

That all sounds pretty good, but I wonder how well this trade off between oil vs. corn really balances out in terms of the environment.



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PLA is cool stuff; but it has some fine print that needs to be adhered to for it to actually be environmentally useful(at least, that is what this article would have me believe).

It looks like it is both recyclable and biodegradable; but the former is presently impractical because there is very little of it in circulation, so it has no recycling code and almost no collection facilities, and the latter applies only under fairly specialized circumstances that would not be present in either a landfill or your compost heap. PLA seems very promising; but using it as a simple drop in replacement for PET seems like a dubious idea. Hopefully we'll do the necessary behind the scenes system level work to make it viable.

It's a step in the right direction, but could be a false step, if consumers don't realize the limitations. And it doesn't look like anyone with a stake in this product is trying to educate them.

I would hate for this to cause a backlash that would discourage others from inventing a better version.

I don't know if making containers from corn is a good thing or a bad thing. It seems though, that we are putting a lot of pressure on corn by using it in so many things: human food, animal food, bio-fuels; and now packaging.

It's important to know how the costs and benefits are balance out and you won't learn that from the marketing literature.

Wher do you think the name Corningware came from?

(Just kidding).

Interestingly enough at McAfee Stadium, where the Oakland Athletics and the Raiders call home, all their plastic cups are made from this material. They've been using it for at leased a year, I think even longer. Also, a company I've been working for for years, sells corn based cups for a little over a year (we're a organic brewing supply company). I've always been a bit wary, that is, a biodegradable cup is an awesome idea, but at what cost (Nitrogen eutrophication is always the first to come to mind)

I have a corn-based coffee cup, part of our campus green initiative. The downside of biodegradability is the plastic isn't dishwasher safe, and I've also found that the plastic really absorbs odors. I think biodegradable disposable cups are a great idea but biodegradable objects that are meant to stick around a long time are more of a gimmick than anything. Like recyclable clothing, for instance.

Thanks for pointing out that our cups do not coincide with our website messaging - you have a Gen1 Greenware stock print cup that references corn, while our Gen2 stock print is consistent with our website. NatureWorks, our PLA supplier, has moved away from identifying corn as their sugar source (for scientific and marketing reasons) and are now asking all of their converters to support "plants and biopolymers" in our verbiage.
Greenware has opended the door to new and innovative materials that will surely change how plastics are used and perceived in the decades outlying. Stay tuned for many new materials to join PLA in the ranks of bio-resins and renewable resources!
Truly, John Kittredge, VP Marketing, Fabri-Kal

By John Kittredge (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink