Packaging Within Grasp Soon
By Marcia Wood
April 29, 2002
Todays leftover rice and wheat
straw might tomorrow be used in making environmentally friendly packaging
materials or other biobased products. The molded polystyrene forms that hold
computers or electronic components snugly in their shipping cartons, for
example, could be replaced with biodegradable inserts made--in part--from straw
fiber. Thats according to Agricultural Research Service chemist William
J. Orts. He is leader of the
Chemistry and Engineering Unit at the ARS
Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif.
Orts directs studies that are revealing how cellulose-rich fibers from straw
hold up during pulping. The pulping process results in a slurry of straw, water
and additives, such as clays and starches, that are dried and molded into rigid
Straw fibers must perform predictably so that the finished pulp product is
uniform, according to Orts. Otherwise, manufacturers might opt to stay with
familiar raw materials instead of choosing straw.
Orts is collaborating in the studies with Regale Corporation, a California-based
designer and manufacturer of customized packaging made from recycled materials.
In new tests at the Western Regional Research Center, Orts and
co-researchers are putting rice and wheat straw through a modified hot-water
and a conventional chemical-based pulping process. The researchers hope to
discover variations that could lower costs. That could boost the appeal of rice
or wheat straw as an economical manufacturing option.
Packaging materials and other biobased products from straw could give
growers a new, profitable market for straw that today is plowed under or
perhaps sold for animal feed or bedding.
The amount of straw produced each year is enormous. In California alone, the
annual rice crop generates more than 300,000 tons of straw. And the
states wheat crop yields an estimated 400,000 tons of straw.
An article in the
2002 issue of the agencys Agricultural Research magazine has more
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agricultures chief scientific research agency.