Use of corn in the production of film wrap, food containers, fabrics and other products will increase dramatically over the next few years, said speakers at the U.S. Grains Council's Third International Value-Enhanced Grains Conference.

Several companies, including Cargill Dow, DuPont, Mitsubishi Plastics and BASF, plan to produce polymers from corn (or biopolymers) on a large scale over the next 10 years, according to representatives from both U.S. and Japanese companies.

“Biopolymers are safe to the environment, which is very important in Japan. The demand forecast of the biopolymer market in Japan is very high.”

Pat Gruber, chief technology officer for Cargill Dow, said at the Portland, Ore., meeting his company recently completed construction of a plant in Blair, Neb., and plans to begin operation in 2002. The company will produce biodegradable plates, forks, spoons, cups, deli containers, clear film, bottles and fabrics from PLA, a biopolymer made from lactic acid, which is made from fermentable sugars from corn.

Gruber said Cargill Dow anticipates purchasing 14 million bushels of corn a year once the plant reaches full-scale operation.

Ray Miller, technology and business development manager for DuPont Sorona, said his company anticipates purchasing upwards of 100 million bushels of corn a year once DuPont's bio-based materials strategic business unit reaches large-scale operation.

Miller said DuPont Sorona will begin producing apparel, home furnishings and packaging from bio-based polymers within the next two years and be fully operational by 2010.

Environmental profile

Bio-based polymers have become attractive to manufacturers recently due to their environmental profile. Unlike plastics made from petroleum, biopolymers made from fermented cornstarch are biodegradable and do not emit toxic fumes when incinerated. Biopolymer products also can be recycled.

Biopolymers perform well in a variety of fiber and resin applications, Miller said. They dye easily, make a soft fabric and are inherently resistant to stains and UV rays.

Also attractive to DuPont is the fact that the company can retrofit existing polyester facilities rather than build new plants to produce the new bio-based materials, Miller said.

Isao Inomata, senior manager for Mitsubishi Plastic, one of Japan's largest plastic product manufacturers, said the biopolymer market is also expected to grow substantially in Japan over the next decade.

“Biopolymers are safe to the environment, which is very important in Japan,” Inomata said. “The demand forecast of the biopolymer market in Japan is very high.”

Inomata participated in a panel discussion on the potential and benefits of biopolymers, along with two other Japanese industry representatives: Masatsugu Mochizuki of Unitika, Ltd., an Osaka-based company whose textiles, resins, films and plastics are used in everything from food packaging to athletic apparel; and Koichi Kikuchim of Kanebo Gohsen Ltd., a major Japanese textile company that has been at the forefront of commercial applications for fabrics made from PLA fiber.

A shortage of landfill space in Japan makes bio-based materials a particularly appealing option there. The U.S. Grains Council's Tokyo office has been working for several years to help develop the regulatory and commercial infrastructure to make widespread use of bio-based products a reality in Japan.

The U.S. Grains Council is a private, non-profit partnership of farmers and agribusinesses committed to building and expanding international markets for U.S. barley, corn, grain sorghum and their products. The Council is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and has 10 international offices that oversee programs in more than 80 countries. Support for the Council comes from its members and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.