Growing the plant-based plastics industry: Cargill's NatureWorks

Back in the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1976 — wasn’t that a time! – Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner did an amusing routine about a product called Shimmer. The scene unfolds in a suburban kitchen where a husband (played by Ackroyd) and wife (played by Radner) are arguing about Shimmer: Is it a floor wax, or is it a dessert topping?

Turns out they’re both right, according to Shimmer’s spokesperson (played by Chevy Chase), who demonstrates the product’s dual functions by spraying it onto the floor and on some butterscotch pudding. Argument settled, Radner starts to mop with the product while Ackroyd looks on, cozy with his Shimmer-topped dessert.

I was reminded of Shimmer when I sat down recently to talk with Steve Davies, the director of public affairs and marketing at NatureWorks, a private company that aims to turn carbohydrates from plants into a wide array of products and materials.

The company grew out of a 1989 Cargill research project focused on finding ways to use carbohydrates as a base for plastics. Later, Cargill formed a joint venture with Dow Chemical to create NatureWorks. Its first manufacturing plant in Blair, Neb., opened in 2002. Dow eventually exited the venture. Last October, PTT Global Chemical, a Thai chemical company, invested $150 million in NatureWorks. The company said then that it would build a second manufacturing plant in Thailand.

According to the company, its work represents “one of the largest efforts every in green chemistry.”

Why green? Because the plant-based plastics and fibers made by NatureWorks replace oil-based products. “We live and breathe petro,” Steve says, reminding me that many carpets, bed sheets and fabrics (polyester, polypropylene) contain petroleum-based textiles. Plastic packaging, of course, is also oil-based.

Photo of cornfield provided by Nikolay Petkov via Shutterstock.

Next page: Ingeo, the bioplastic that could