Lightweight, biodegradable containers for taking home your fast-food meal or leftovers from your restaurant dinner can be made with wheat starch, ARS scientists have shown.

So, too, can cups, bowls and plates. Here's the plus: Because they're biodegradable, all of these foodservice items offer a more environmentally friendly option than today's petroleum-based, polystyrene foam products.

Plant physiologist Gregory M. Glenn of the ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., is working with EarthShell Corp., the Santa Barbara, Calif., innovator of potato-starch-based foodservice products, to fine-tune manufacturing of the wheat-starch disposables.

Glenn's research has proven that the biodegradable products are just as attractive, sturdy, convenient to use and leakproof as their polystyrene counterparts. But, because they biodegrade easily, the starch-based disposables lessen the burden on America's already over-stuffed landfills.

Having a selection of different starches — such as wheat, potato or corn — to choose from gives manufacturers of biodegradable products some purchasing flexibility. That flexibility can help them keep their prices competitive with polystyrene items.

The wheat-based containers can be made in presses or molds that work something like a giant waffle iron. The process begins with pouring the wheat-starch batter onto the heated mold, which is then closed and locked. Moisture in the batter generates steam that, in turn, causes the batter to foam, expand, and fill the mold. The steam is vented and, when the 'baking' is finished, the mold is opened, the product is removed and the cycle starts again.

The entire process takes less than a minute. A water-resistant film, added later, helps the container keep its strength and shape.

Glenn and colleague William J. Orts, also of the Western Regional Research Center, recently won a USDA Honor Award — one of the department's highest honors — for their innovative research with biodegradable packaging.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.