Wild Oats Offering Biodegradable Corn Containers

TUCSON, Ariz. - Wild Oats Natural Marketplace here has begun offering biodegradable containers in its deli sections that resemble regular clear plastic made from petroleum products, but the tubs are really made from cornstarch that's said to break down in seven weeks if composted, the Arizona Daily Star reports..

The natural-foods retailer and its supplier would additionally like to replace plastic bags at checkout counters with bags that disintegrate naturally and are made from a renewable resource.

According to local recycling advocates and garbage experts, however, Wild Oats' strategy, although well intentioned, is primarily a feel-good measure that will have only a negligible impact on the city's garbage problem. Such supermarket containers -- from all the supermarket chains in Tucson -- make up less than 1 percent of its garbage, explained Wilson Hughes, the city's waste-reduction planner.

If consumers aren't able to compost the corn containers, they’re supposed to throw them in the trash. Wild Oats says the containers will degrade faster in a landfill than plastic will, but that's not true in the desert, Hughes said. "It's more of a mummification process -- it's not a big compost pile," he added, noting that he's pulled corncobs from a local landfill that were buried for years.

The corn-based containers aren't recyclable, and Tucson also doesn't accept most of the clear containers given out in other supermarkets, or plastic margarine tubs. Hughes is concerned that residents, thinking the new product is good for the environment, will throw them in their blue bins and contaminate Tucson's supply of recyclables.

Wild Oats says it's making sure to tell all its customers about the properties of the containers -- particularly their inability to withstand temperatures over 135 degrees. The retailer says it won't place the new product in its salad bars until consumers know more.

According to Wild Oats, the corn-based containers cost only a few cents more than plastic ones, but it won't pass that cost on to shoppers.

The product, manufactured by Cargill Dow LLC, depends on carbon from the atmosphere that's naturally absorbed by plants through photosynthesis. The corn is milled, the starch is converted into unrefined dextrose, and then it's fermented, distilled, and melted to make the containers. Cargill Dow says the process cuts fossil-fuel consumption by 50 percent and generates 15 percent to 60 percent less greenhouse gases, which are thought to trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

Wild Oats says it's forming relationships with industrial composters across the country so that it can collect the corn-based containers at its stores, then turn them into compost to be sold back to customers for gardening. By April it expects all of its 75 U.S. stores to be using the corn-based containers.
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