In the 19th century
, kerosene-the fuel that lit the lamps of the world-was made from whale oil. But whales were becoming harder and harder come by, presaging a tenuous future for the world's kerosene lamps. Fortuitously, a geologist named Abraham Gesner invented a way to distill kerosene from petroleum, which most people considered a useless, if abundant, substance. Today, we make most of our plastics from petroleum byproducts, and, in an interesting reversal, that resource is now in short supply. We are faced with a choice: either give up plastics altogether or find a different way to make them. Enter Ingeo, a plastic that is made from plants.You may have already encountered an Ingeo product while using, say, a bottle of Method dish soap or many of the plastic products available at WalMart, but the innovative material will become more ubiquitous shortly, as Frito-Lay has decided to use it in the packaging of SunChips bags, which will be completely compostable by Earth Day in 2010. Ingeo is made by a company called NatureWorks, founded in 2001 by Cargill and Teijin, to find ways to make plant-based plastics. The process involves fermenting plants, which creates lactic acid-it's a key ingredient in yogurt-which goes through a polymerization process to become Ingeo plastic. The plastic itself can be recycled or even, in the right conditions, composted, and can be made from nearly any plant. Right now in the United States, it's made from corn, but that's just because corn is what's available.
"It's whatever would be in abundance in the local economy," says Steve Davies, NatureWorks's director of communications and public affairs. "And longer term, we're looking at ... the stalk of the corn plant," a solution which would remove the conflict of interest in making a plastic from a plant that could also be used food.At the moment, Ingeo plastic, as with many sustainable products, is more expensive than conventional plastic. But last summer, when oil prices skyrocketed, the prices were almost equal. In the likely case that oil prices rise again, or if we reach a point where oil-like the whales of the 19th century-is about to run out, we wont have to rethink our entire lives: there will be plant-based plastic to fill the void.Photo courtesy of Natureworks.