Corn Containers

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Mission, Kansas (AP)
By Elizabeth Mckenley

The clear, ridged containers that hold potato salad and other deli items at the Wild Oats store in this Kansas City suburb look and feel like plastic. They're not.

Instead, fitting in with the theme of the natural foods grocer, they're made from corn.

"It's fantastic. It looks exactly the same," said Wild Oats shopper Ann Vacanti, a corporate travel agent.

Wild Oats Markets Inc. has begun rolling out the made-from-corn containers for deli items in its stores in 25 states and Canada - starting with three stores in the Kansas City area. The containers, which have been tested in Colorado and Oregon, will hit all stores by the end of March.

A sticker on the containers - which are easily mistaken for plastic - alert shoppers that they're made of corn.

"This is the largest market for us," said Kevin Dickerson, community marketing coordinator for the Mission store. There's also a strong "history of organics and people buying them in Kansas City. It's kind of a reward for those people."

But how do you get a container that looks, acts and feels like plastic out of a kernel of corn? It's a process developed by NatureWorks PLA, a subsidiary of Cargill Dow LLC.

First, starch is extracted from the corn kernel and converted into a sugar called dextrose, which is fermented into lactic acid. Much like the plastics-making process, water is boiled off from the lactic acid, creating a molecular polymer.

The eventual result is a pellet similar to plastic, which can be made into sheets and molded into the containers used by Wild Oats.

Converting the corn kernel into a pellet takes less than a week, said Mike O'Brien, a spokesman at Cargill Dow. And compared with plastic production, making a corn container uses fewer amounts of fossil fuels and emits lower levels of greenhouse gases.

It costs 2 to 3 cents more per container for the corn-based packaging, said Sonja Tuitele, director of corporate communications for Boulder-based Wild Oats. That adds up - the company uses 6 million such containers each year, she said, but has no plans to pass the cost increase on to customers.

The food retailer believes the cost will decrease as more companies start using the technology, she said. Other companies are already starting to take advantage of the technology, Sony Corp. among them, O'Brien said.

The corn containers have some limitations. Because they decompose in heat, hot food items will melt the containers, which also means they can't be put in a microwave or dishwasher.

"I was worried that someone would put it in their dishwasher and it would melt and go down in the drain and ruin the dishwasher," said Jerry Wright, Wild Oats store director in Mission. "But it will just turn into a sheet of plastic and you take it out and throw it away."

Wright said the store does not currently offer recycling for the containers, but will by the end of the year.

The containers will decompose in 30 to 50 days under the right conditions, O'Brien said. Wild Oats hopes to eventually sell the broken down containers as compost.

Tuitele said Wild Oats also is talking with its vendors, trying to get them to switch to the corn-based containers.

"Basically, it's much more environmentally friendly," she said.

Environmentalists said using corn-based containers is a step in the right direction. Food retailers such as Wild Oats could set a trend for other stores to follow, said Anna Peterson, chairwoman of the sustainable consumption committee of the Sierra Club.

"It may make people stop and think about the environmental impacts," she said. "If it spreads, it's a good thing."

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