Hey, Are Those Soybean Jeans You're Wearing?

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Paper or wheat? That's the checkout quandary you may soon face now that the first plastic made from such environmentally friendly crops as corn, wheat and soy is almost ready to go into mass production. Polyactide — or PLA in plastic-speak — is the result of a heated race among chemical and bioengineering companies throughout the past decade to reap the environmental cachet that would come with the first "all natural" plastic. This week, Dow Cargill Polymer, a combined effort of Dow Chemical and Cargill Inc., prompted sighs in the Monsanto and DuPont boardrooms when it announced that it would be the first to bring PLA to your local grocery by sometime next year.

And not a moment too soon. Petroleum-based plastics, the magically versatile material of the 20th century, have two major problems: Their manufacturing cost is held hostage by crude oil prices, and, because they're not easy to break down chemically, they can linger in landfills for decades. PLA solves both problems, and is as durable as petroleum-based plastics. The complex process that creates the new plastic involves feeding the crops to microbes, similar to the way yogurt is curdled. The result has been compared to the polyester frequently used in plastic soda bottles, carpeting and wrinkle-free clothes, and clothing manufacturers are already salivating over the money-saving prospect of mixing cheaper plastics with such fibers as wool and cotton and selling them as "all natural." Note to shoppers: Pretty soon you may want to start reading those organic food labels more closely.