One Word: Corn

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($$),
agribusiness heavyweight Cargill Inc. has started producing a
corn-derivative plastic that can be used to manufacture hard
plastic and a polyester-like fabric. In an effort to jump on the
sustainability bandwagon, Dupont and other companies across the
country are developing corn-based fabrics for bedding and clothing.
And in 2001, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory announced, in an
in New Scientist
($$), 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
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
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.

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