Over the years fast food has been wrapped in a variety of different materials, each of which has proved problematic for one reason or another. But according to findings presented today at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers may have finally found a way to make fast food packaging that¿s better, cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Initially most fast food came in polystyrene clamshells, which were light and easy to make, and kept the food warm. Unfortunately, polystyrene is not biodegradable, and it contains ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Taking those environmental drawbacks into consideration, the industry switched to cardboard, which has its own shortcomings. "Cardboard is more expensive, heavier and more complicated to make," says Geoffrey Nobes of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "And it doesn't keep it [food] as warm."

Nobes and his colleagues at the USDA thus set out to find a better material. Packaging based on wheat¿that is, fiber from the wheat stalk (straw) and starch from the wheat kernels¿they determined, holds promise. And wheat containers are completely biodegradable. "If people have a compost [pile] in the backyard, they could throw these containers in the compost," Nobes notes.

Starch-based containers have been made before, using potato starch, but wheat starch is considerably cheaper than its potato-based counterpart. Moreover, wheat-starch-based containers keep food warm longer than do either the popular cardboard containers or those made from potato starch.

Some problems still need to be resolved before wheat containers can hold your burgers, however. For one thing, the clamshells tend to soften when they get wet. "There's probably some coating that may need to be applied," Nobes remarks, "but we hope to be able to avoid that."