Corn Becomes Plastic at Huge New Nebraska Factory

NEW YORK, New York, January 11, 2000 (ENS) - The kernel of a new industry for America's heartland is a first of its kind factory that will make the raw material of plastic cups, packaging and fabric from corn, not petroleum.

Cargill Dow Polymers, a joint venture between Cargill Incorporated and The Dow Chemical Company, today leapfrogged over other plant based plastics companies by announcing plans to build a "world-scale facility" in Blair, Nebraska to manufacture plastic products from corn.

Companies have been experimenting for years with plant based plastics as replacements for petroleum based plastics with their toxic byproducts, wastes and inability to break down in landfills.

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Agricultural engineer Kenneth Sudduth examines a sample of corn. (Photo by Bruce Fritz courtesy USDA)
Cargill Dow Polymers (CDP) has stepped into the lead by offering a family of durable plastics derived entirely from annually renewable agricultural crops that can compete with hydrocarbon based fibers and packing materials in cost and performance.

Cargill and Dow plan to invest more than $300 million in the business and production facility.

A new technology will use natural plant sugars from corn to make a "proprietary" polylactide (PLA) polymers for fibers, plastic packaging and other products. Future applications of the technology could include injection blow molded bottles, foams, emulsions and chemical intermediaries.

This new technology allows the company to "harvest" the carbon that living plants remove from the air through photosynthesis. Carbon is stored in plant starches, which can be broken down into natural plant sugars. The carbon and other elements in these natural sugars are then used to make NatureWorkstm PLA, which will be made into utensils, packaging or fibers for cloth adn carpeting.

The new CDP plant will be located at the site of Cargill's corn wet milling plant at Blair. It is expected to come on stream in late 2001 with an annual capacity of 140,000 metric tons of NatureWorks PLA polymers.

"The decision to locate at Blair was based on a number of factors, including the availability of natural plant sugars needed to make PLA, proximity to existing Cargill operations, easy access to railroads and freeways and an excellent pool of people qualified to train for high value jobs as operations technicians," said Jim Stoppert, CDP president and CEO.

Approximately 200 people will be employed in the construction of the CDP plant, which will be operated by a staff of about 100 people.

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Typical Nebraska cornfield (Photo courtesy Gina's Nebraska)
Cargill's corn wet milling division produces about 600,000 tons of Sweet Bran® 60, 100,000 tons of corn gluten meal, 50,000 tons of corn oil, 1.5 billion pounds of high fructose corn sweeteners, and 70 million gallons of fuel grade ethanol.

Cargill’s new Bioscience Division in Blair is working on genetically engineered technologies "to enhance food and people’s health," Cargill said in a statement in May 1999. No biotechnology is involved in creating the new plastic from corn, Stoppert said today.

William Stavropoulos, president and CEO of Dow, said, "What's exciting about this technology is its multitude of applications and the fact that plastics can come from renewable resources such as corn," Stavropoulos said.

"NatureWorks polymers offer the opportunity to develop truly sustainable products, and because we are using raw material that can be regenerated year after year, it is cost competitive and environmentally responsible," said Stavropoulos.

CDP currently has the capacity to manufacture more than 4,000 tons of PLA per year at a plant near Minneapolis, and plans to double that capacity during 2000. In addition, it expects to begin construction of a large scale European plant in two years.