22 August 2001

Almost as palatable as potatoes…

Toby St George Matthews has a novel alternative to those plastic chip trays

IMAGINE a polystyrene tray of hot chips, straight from the fryer. Enough to make your mouth water, isnt it? But now imagine the same empty trays, littering the pavement, chucked away thoughtlessly when the chips are finished.

Not such an attractive picture – but one that society is having to pay to clear up. And its not just chip trays, but all kinds of packaging. Nearly everything we buy from supermarkets is now wrapped, and double wrapped, in plastic materials, which must then be disposed of in increasingly expensive landfill sites.

There is an alternative. We could be using environmentally friendly, biodegradable materials – such as potato starch – to make the packaging, instead of plastic. After a few days exposed to the sun and rain, these materials would dissolve, and the litter problem would literally vanish.

Here at Potatopak were developing fast food trays made from potato starch. We started trading at the beginning of the year, and have been producing trays since June. Potatopak is the only company doing this in the UK; we have licensed out the process to a New Zealand company, and we have two competitors, one in the US and the other in Germany.

We can produce a whole range of products: plates, trays, bowls and punnets, through compression moulding techniques. Potato packaging could usefully be employed in food retail, outdoor catering, takeaways and gift packaging, to name a few. Potato starch is 100% biodegradable, and 100% compostable. Even if you were to eat a potato plate (though I wouldnt recommend it), you would come to no harm – and neither would animals or marine life. In short, this is a sensible solution to an increasingly difficult waste problem.

It doesnt stop at potato plates. The technology exists to turn potato starch into a host of other products – plastic bags, packing material, biodegradable plastic nappy liners, plastic cutlery for takeaway products.

Although some of these products might be more expensive than the plastic alternative, there are spin-off benefits which would make any extra costs worthwhile. Take Glastonbury, for example. The site of the festival is home to dairy cows for most of the year. Discarded plastic stirrers are dangerous; small plastic splinters can damage stomach linings of grazing cows. But starch-based stirrers are not a problem – cows can eat these without risk.

Other European countries are already exploring starch-based plastics, and there are tax advantages being granted which encourage such a move.

At Potatopak we are currently using imported potato starch. Why? The British Potato Council tells me that theres likely to be 1.2m tonnes of waste potatoes produced this year in the UK. Thats the equivalent of 2.61 billion potato trays – enough to supply the annual plastic tray requirement for one major supermarket chain.

To replace all the plastic and polystyrene used in food packaging, wed need another 3-4m tonnes of potatoes. Thats a big potential market. Currently were in discussions with J Sainsbury; there is keen interest. After all, its green, it could even be organic, and its something that could create an extra outlet for hard-hit UK growers.

It takes about 20t of potatoes to produce 1t of starch, which we can then transform into about 43,500 trays, depending on size.

The big question for UK growers is what price they might be paid for a tonne of potatoes for starch extraction. Not surprisingly, we cant give any promises. We can import cheap potato starch from Venezuela. Were currently importing from Europe. And wed have to take the cheapest source available; were a commercial company and you couldnt expect anything less.

But there must be opportunities here for UK growers. For example, could potatoes for starch extraction be grown as an industrial crop on set-aside? The compostability of potato starch products is a major benefit, now that the Government has set new, ambitious targets to encourage compost systems.

Biodegradable potato starch is good news for the environment, and could be good news for potato producers in this country.

&#8226 Toby St George Matthews is chief executive of Potatopak Ltd, based at Henstridge, Somerset. For more information, email potatopakorders@supanet.com