WYNDMOOR, PA. – U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and university cooperators have combined sugar beet pulp and polylactic acid (PLA) to develop biodegradable plastic that may be used in disposable food containers. Called thermoplastic, the biodegradable plastic retains mechanical properties similar to polystyrene and polypropylene, which are two compounds used to make white, spongy food packages.

Sugar beet pulp is residue from sugar extraction. U.S. beet sugar industries generate more than 1 million tons of sugar beet pulp annually, according to the U.S.D.A. Polylactic acid is a polymer derived from the sugars in corn, sugar beet, sugarcane, switchgrass and other plants.

The researchers at the U.S.D.A.’s Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, with cooperation from Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., showed that up to 50% sugar beet pulp may be incorporated with PLA to produce the biodegradable thermoplastic.