One Word: Corn

Agricultural products are helping the plastics industry wean itself from oil


| July 14, 2005


As concern mounts about US dependency on petroleum, corporate giants like Cargill, Dow, DuPont, and Motorola are turning to corn, soy, and even cow manure to make non-petroleum-based plastics. With oil selling for around $60 a barrel, corn -- at about $3 a bushel -- looks like an extremely attractive alternative.

As the Los Angeles Times reports($$), agribusiness heavyweight Cargill Inc. has started producing a corn-derivative plastic that can be used to manufacture hard plastic and a polyester-like fabric. In an effort to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, Dupont and other companies across the country are developing corn-based fabrics for bedding and clothing. And in 2001, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory announced, in an article in New Scientist($$), that it was researching the possibility of making plastics from manure. By the year 2030, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Department of Energy wants 25 percent of all chemical manufacturing derived from agricultural products.

Some companies already are heeding the call by tapping the new technology to create biodegradable products. According to the University of Warwick in England, Motorola has launched an effort to reduce e-waste by creating a trendy biodegradable mobile-phone case that will even grow a flower from a seed embedded in it when planted in the ground. Food and beverage companies, grocery store chains, and college cafeterias are making the switch to vegetable-based plastic containers, Columbia News Service reports. Newman's Own packages its fresh produce in corn-based plastic containers that can biodegrade in 45 days when composted. Coca-Cola even used biodegradable plastic cups at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, according to The Associated Press.

Such technological innovations are meant to edge us away from our reliance on petroleum and put consumers on a more environmentally minded purchasing track. But corn and other biomass-derived plastics aren't ecologically perfect and currently cost more than conventional plastics. Producing corn-based plastic cuts down on fossil fuel use, but only by about half of that used to make petroleum-based plastic. Also, as bloggers on Gristmill note, increasing non-food agricultural production can have negative implications. Farmers use more pesticides on crops not intended for human consumption, and growing large-scale monocultures can reduce biodiversity.

Go there >> To Replace Oil, US Experts See Amber Waves of Plastic($$)

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