Petroleum-based plastic is used in just about every modern manufactured product. Cars, clothing, packaging — all have some form of plastic in them. But petroleum is getting expensive, and isn’t always easy on the environment. Around the world, growing concerns about oil supply and environmental issues have manufacturing companies looking for new alternatives.

Sensing opportunity, Cargill Incorporated and Dow Chemical Company engaged in a joint venture to invent a technology that could produce high-performance polymers entirely from No. 2 yellow corn and other plant materials such as wheat, beets and rice. The result of that research is the Cargill Dow LLC company’s patented fermentation technology. The process creates lactic acid (a common food additive) and refines it into polylactide polymers (PLA). The unique polymers can be turned into high-performing plastics that break down more easily with high temperatures and water common in composting landfills. The company claims that, at normal temperatures, PLA products are longer-lasting, more breathable and more resilient than most petroleum-based polymers.

Mike O’Brien, Cargill Dow’s communications director, says his company has traveled the world to show off PLA-cotton blended clothing, PLA carpeting, PLA films and other packaging, marketed under the label NatureWorks. He explains that the company hopes to produce an economically viable product that replaces petroleum with renewable resources such as corn. “We’re driving petroleum out of as many processes as possible to make PLA products more cost-competitive and environmentally friendly,” O’Brien says. “And PLA outperforms conventional polymers in some cases. PLA-cotton blends don’t wrinkle and feel more comfortable. PLA carpeting is more stain resistant. We also believe our brand, NatureWorks, will create point of purchase customer appeal.”

Audiences ranging from Japanese clothing manufacturers to European Greenpeace activists have been impressed enough to encourage Cargill Dow to move ahead in producing viable products in volume. To meet anticipated demand for its new polymer, the company is building a new plant in Blair, NE, scheduled to begin production in 2002. The facility is slated for a capacity of 140,000 metric tons and will start using dextrose from Cargill’s wet milling plants. As global demand for NatureWorks PLA increases, Cargill Dow expects to add capacity in Europe and Asia. Within 10 years, the company foresees a potential 500,000 metric ton market for PLA. In three to five years, it plans to start using stalks, leaves and other plant materials instead of just plant sugars. This could allow farmers to produce a second “biomass” income from the same crop.

For more information, contact Cargill Dow LLC, 15305 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka, MN 55345, 887/423-7659, or visit www.cdpoly.com.