Plastic from wheat starch on the way

16 February 2001

Plastic from wheat starch on the way

By Amanda Dunn

A NEW non-food market for wheat could be available within the next few years.

Each year the UK produces millions of tonnes of domestic and industrial waste of which a large proportion is non-degradable packaging. Now a wheat-based plastic could provide an environmentally-friendly alternative, says York Universitys Rukmal Abeysekera.

"Wholly bio-compostable packaging materials made from modified wheat starch have been developed at the university under a three-year research project and could soon meet market demand.

"Pressure on land fill sites is now revitalising interest in finding new, cost-effective ways of producing materials from cheap naturally occurring feedstuffs which are also environmentally friendly," he says.

The production process developed at the university has been so successful it is now undergoing patenting. "The process broadly involves the extraction then chemical modification of wheat starch, which is then developed into films and pellets for moulding into packaging materials.

"Our objective is to produce not just a biodegradable product but a wholly biocompostable material. Biodegradable and biocompostable are two different things," says Dr Abeysekera. "Starch granules imbedded in a polythene film will degrade but leave a skeleton of polythene. What we want to achieve is full decomposition.

"While there are some products already on the market, these are not waterproof and therefore not widely useable. For example, you could not produce a milk container from these products.

"Our aim is to produce a packaging material from wheat starch that is capable of holding liquid, but also completely biocompostable.

"Provided this meets more than a niche market there may be considerable potential for wheat, possibly grown on set-aside land, to be used for this type of production." &#42

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