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Cornstarch peanuts (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

My wife and I got a package in the mail that fascinated me. I don't even recall its contents, because I was taken with the the green packing peanuts used to protect whatever it was from damage. As I scooped up the pellets to toss them in the trash, my wife said, with a very knowing voice, "Just toss them on the compost pile." What! Plastic in the compost? No. She showed me a slip of paper that explained: There was no "plastic or polluting gases" used to make these peanuts; they were made of cornstarch.

Toss them on your compost pile or spread them on your lawn and with a bit of water they'll dissolve in minutes. These cornstarch packing peanuts are part of a movement called "green engineering."

It's a design philosophy where the environment is explicitly considered from the beginning: A goal is to find processes and products which are feasible and economical while minimizing pollution at the very beginning. These cornstarch packing peanuts are the work of food engineer Bill Stoll.

He grew up in a small Iowa farming town and attributes his creativity to this upbringing. "Farmers," he recalls, "could fix anything." Watching them do this gave Stoll a love for entrepreneurial ventures. He claims it's "The most exciting thing a person could do -- and the scariest. You challenge every creative bone in your body -- like jumping off a ledge with a bungee cord."

So he devoted his career to consulting with entrepreneurs in the food industry. In 1992, near the end of his career, Bill Stoll had lunch in a St. Paul restaurant with a client whose company used popcorn for packaging. The owner was looking for a way to pop bigger batches and he wanted to pick Stoll's mind. This question made Stoll recall sounds he'd heard as a kid.

In a factory he'd seen cereal being prepared in huge pressure cookers. When the clamp holding the top was knocked away by a sledge hammer, the lid flew open and the grain exploded as if from a cannon. Stoll knew that a similar method is used to make puffed snack food. So he came up with the idea of making something like corn curls for packaging. The result: biodegradable packing peanuts.

Now that I've seen these I see cornstarch everywhere. I've heard of biodegradable cornstarch cutlery, it dissolves in a day. Not a bad deal considering a plastic fork is typically used for three minutes, and then sits at least a hundred years in a landfill. And I've heard rumors that a company is developing a way to use cornstarch to make upholstery. Who knows where this green engineering revolution will end.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises