SOON YOU MAY BE ABLE TO GET MORE STARCH FOR YOUR MONEY AT MCDONALD'S. Beginning next year, the fast-food chain hopes to start serving its Big Macs in containers made of two cheap, abundant resources: potato starch and limestone. The technique comes from E. Khashoggi Industries (EKI), a think tank in Santa Barbara, Calif. EKI has granted an exclusive manufacturing license to EarthShell Corp., also in Santa Barbara. Barring production glitches, EarthShell and its subcontractors hope to supply about 1.8 billion containers to McDonald's Corp. over a three-year period.

To make the containers, starch is boiled to a froth in water, mixed with some limestone and wood fiber, and then baked into disposable bowls, plates, or cups in special molds. The containers keep their integrity as long as they remain relatively dry--meaning a container's water content must not rise above 20%. That's no big problem for burgers and fries. And to handle beverages, EKI has developed additional biodegradable coatings that keep a cup water-resistant until it is crushed or broken.

Per Just Andersen, EKI's vice-president for product engineering, says the starch containers should cost no more to make than paperboard and polystyrene packages, and require much less energy to manufacture. But the biggest advantage is downstream: Exposed to water in a landfill, the starch breaks down and is gobbled by bacteria in far less time than it takes ordinary paper and plastic products to decompose.

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