Biodegradable Packaging That Dissolves in Water

`ECO-FOAM'' packaging looks and acts like polystyrene, until it is immersed in water. Then it disappears like corn starch, which is 95 percent of its content. The material for foam ``peanuts'' that protect goods shipped in boxes boasts three advantages over polystyrene (used in Styrofoam brand packaging), says its manufacturer, American Excelsior:

It generates less solid waste.

It does not produce the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons given off in the manufacture of polystyrene.

It reduces dependency on petroleum.

``People are excited about switching to a raw material grown in this country,'' says Bob Gregerson, president of the manufacturer based in Arlington, Texas. The ingredients of the product are made by National Starch and Chemical in Bridgewater, N.J.

Eco-Foam is being unveiled this week in Chicago, where it is available on a limited basis. Within two years, the product will be available nationwide, Mr. Gregerson says. The product is designed to be flushed down the toilet, composted in one's backyard, or washed down the drain, say its makers.

But there are drawbacks: price and disposal concerns.

At $1 per cubic foot, Eco-Foam costs twice as much as polystyrene packaging, but 10 to 30 percent less than other organic packaging matter like popcorn and paper, Gregerson says.

Environmentalists may raise concerns about spreading the material on land and into water supplies.

But Ramani Narayan, professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, says the polyvinyl alcohol has been documented by Japanese scientists to be wholly biodegradable by microorganisms found in the soil. ``This product definitely answers all questions about degradability and toxic by-products. It is a truly environmental product.'' He adds: ``Polystyrene peanut packaging ... should be replaced. It doesn't make sense to use it in that place when there is no possibility of recycling that matter.''

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