From flax to french fries

North Dakota State Roundup

Published April 1, 1992  | April 1992 issue

North Dakota is the world's third largest producer of flax, behind Russia and the neighboring Canadian province of Manitoba.

Flax fiber is strong and durable and used to make linen; the edible seed turns into linseed oil, which studies have shown to reduce cholesterol. But the remaining straw, slow to degrade, is often left in the field to be burned by farmers.

Now a Garrison farmer has plans for that discarded straw. Lewis Bauer, president and founder of Bio-Sunn, employs an environmentally safe pulping process to mold flax straw into biodegradable packaging products. "This is the leading edge of technology," Bauer says. "We made the right connection with someone who had developed a safe pulp process."

Plans are under way for a pilot plant in Walhalla, a town of 1,429 people in the northeastern corner of North Dakota where much of US flax is farmed. Canadian flax grown nearby will also likely supply the plant. Bio-Sunn expects to employ 125 people when small-scale production begins this fall. In addition to producing packaging materials, the plant's sugar- based waste water from the pulping process will be used by the ethanol plant next door.

The packaging will likely first appear as fast-food containers for burgers and fries. The pulp will also be molded into meat trays used in grocery stores and into packing material for hardware.

The non-toxic material degrades quickly in a compost pile, can be used as fertilizer or can be fed to animals. "It is made from a completely renewable resource," Bauer says. "It can be coated with beeswax for waterproofing and longer shelf life." And the price is competitive with polystyrene (Styrofoam) and paper packaging.

Contracts have been signed with an undisclosed major restaurant chain to purchase the clam-shell food containers. And a German parts manufacturer is interested in purchasing flax straw packing material, similar in strength to particle board.

Once the environmentally sound packaging takes hold in the market, Bauer says, the Walhalla site will be enlarged and a second and larger plant will be built in the west-central North Dakota town of Garrison.

Nettie Pignatello