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[greenyes] Underlying assumptions re: plastic from corn vs. fossil fuel


While your remarks about the varied detrimental effects of traditional
plastics--at the production and littering/disposal ends--are indisputable, I
think caution is warranted in using the word "renewable" as it applies to
corn-based plastics.

Modern corn production relies on numerous petroleum-derived inputs in the
form of pesticides, fertilizers, and fossil fuel-powered agricultural
machinery. "It takes the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline to grow
every bushel of corn," says Michael Pollan in an article in the Christian

It produces toxic agricultural runoff. It mines groundwater, using it at
rates faster than it is replenished by rain. It damages the soil: "At
current erosion rates, 1.5 bushels of topsoil are lost for every bushel of
corn produced in the state [of Illinois]."

In my previous posting I mentioned overproduction due to the subsidization
of the U.S. corn industry. According to the Environmental Working Group's
farm subsidy database, $37 billion in subsidies to U.S. corn farmers were
paid between 1995 and 2003.

There are also international economic ramifications to subsidization.
According to Oxfam, surplus corn is "...dumped onto world markets at
artificially low prices. New Oxfam calculations show US corn is dumped in
Mexico at between $105m and $145m a year less than the cost of production."

As far as biodegradability is concerned, these corn-based plastics will
still languish in a landfill in the absence of coordinated efforts to
segregate them from other plastics and compost them (presumably at municipal
= taxpayer) expense. If, on the other hand, industry steps up to coordinate
and pay for collection and composting operations wherever biodegradable
plastics are sold, that would be another story. I look forward to seeing
these actions.

I worry that we are being offered a false choice: between disposable one-way
traditional plastics and disposable bio-plastics which, unless properly
tracked and managed, pose a real threat to ongoing PET recycling efforts.

Note that these corn plastics did not originate from the beverage or
packaging industry seeking to to make a more sustainable product. They have
been developed and manufactured by the corn and chemical industries seeking
more markets for surplus grain:

"The Formation of Cargill Dow LLC: The development of NatureWorks PLA began
as a small-scale project for a team of Cargill scientists asked to explore
new uses for corn. Cargill was looking for ways to expand the use of the
billions of bushels of corn and related byproducts flowing through its
(thanks to Patty Bates-Ballard for this link). The article notes that R&D
was ushered along with tax dollars through agencies including NIST, DOE, and

There are at least two problematic underlying assumptions behind this
"choice" between petro-plastics and bio-plastics:

1) that rising per capita consumption of beverages (and other packaged foods
and goods) is inevitable and beyond question. In the U.S., annual per capita
sales of disposable beverage containers (PET, glass and aluminum) rose from
523 units in 1993 to 629 units in 2003. That's a 20% per capita increase in
one decade, and sales are still growing. For PET beverage containers alone,
per capita consumption grew from 33 bottles in 1993 to 164 bottles in 2003
(a 383% increase). Is there an end in sight?

2) that the refillable container infrastructure--once the norm in the U.S.
and now completely dismantled--cannot be resurrected.

Although refillable PET bottles are in widespread use in Europe and
Scandinavia, the Container Recycling Institute has chosen not to fight the
refillable fight in the United States because we and our companion
organizations do not have the financial resources needed to mount a battle
of this size. But imagine what could be done to re-invigorate a regional
U.S. refillable infrastructure with a financial investment of $750 million?
That's what Cargill Dow LLC (and taxpayers) invested on just ONE plant
making 300 million lbs of corn-based resin per year--an amount equivalent to
only 7% of the PET bottles sold in 2003 (4,292 million lbs). In other
words, revamping the refillable infrastructure is not a technologically
insurmountable challenge; rather, it is one that cries out for leadership
and investment from the packaging and beverage industries, and from
government. Needless to say, the political will to do this is lacking.

I am not saying that corn-based plastics are a sham, or that they are not
preferable to petro-plastics; what I am saying is that the true
"cradle-to-cradle" environmental and economic impacts of such a switch are
much more complex than meets the eye, and that when evaluating such a
switch, we should consider *all* the environmental impacts involved, as well
as who will profit and who will pay.


P.S. Anyone out there remember reading about George Washington Carver in
elementary school? He made proto-plastics (and many other things) from
peanuts almost 100 years ago. Same motivation, by the way: "What can we do
with all these peanuts?" What's really interesting is that the peanuts
themselves were touted as an ecologically healthier replacement crop for
cotton, which had been farmed intensively and had worn out the southern
land. Plus ça change...

On 11/29/04 10:26 PM, D Hughes at djhughes@no.address wrote:

> There are two major advantages that corn- or soy-based plastics have over
> their petroleum-derived counterparts. First, they are renewable. Second,
> they are biodegradable. The consequences of these two advantages, taken
> together, are immense: growing corn does not contribute to global warming,
> to anywhere near the extent that petroleum does; nor does it create a waste
> product which, unless incinerated, lasts virtually forever. Plastic litter
> is the most commonly seen pollutant in the world's oceans, and has led to
> the death of untold numbers of marine wildlife. That in itself should be
> reason to make the switch.
> Don Hughes
> ps. Cutting back on pork and beef consumption would not be a bad idea,
> both in terms of better health and reducing human impacts on the environment.
> t 08:48 AM 11/29/2004, Jenny Gitlitz wrote:
>> On 11/29/04 8:12 AM, Maine, Bruce at Bruce.Maine@no.address wrote:
>>> Sacrificing food resources for consumer goods doesn't seem
>>> to make a lot of sense
>>> From what I understand, "sacrificing" food resources is not an issue. There
>> is a surplus of corn grown in the U.S.--subsidization accounting for the
>> glut. Also--the vast majority of corn grown in the U.S. is used as cattle
>> feed, not as a direct food source for humans. If we were all to become
>> vegetarians or vegans, we could probably cut the land (and water & energy)
>> used to grow our agricultural products by 80-90% (not to mention ag wastes).
>>> From what I understand, the energy inputs used to grow and process
>> corn-based plastics may exceed the energy value of comparable plastic resin
>> from petroleum. I have not seen a complete life-cycle analysis on this, so I
>> can't vouch for this. I am curious to learn if this can be done with net
>> energy savings over traditional plastics manufacture.
>> Other factors must be kept in mind, too: pesticide use, for one. American
>> corn manufacture is a monocrop process that is pesticide-, fertilizer-, and
>> water-intensive, and reduces the potential (=historical) biodiversity of the
>> plains. Trading one monocrop output (beef) for another (corn plastics)
>> doesn't seem like a big win for our society. If the corn could be grown
>> organically, intercropped with other grains, and bred to be
>> drought-tolerant, the overall picture might be different.
>> --Jenny
>> Jennifer Gitlitz
>> Research Director, Container Recycling Institute
>> Home Office:
>> 2 Pomeroy Ave.
>> Dalton, MA 01226
>> Tel. (413) 684-4746
>> Mobile: (413) 822-0115
>> Fax: (413) 403-0233
>> Email: jgitlitz@no.address
>> Please note the new address for CRI¹s main office:
>> Container Recycling Institute
>> 1601 North Kent St., Suite 803
>> Arlington, VA 22209-2105
>> Tel. (703) 276-9800
>> Fax: (703) 276-9587
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> -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
> Don Hughes, PhD student *
> Dept of Chemistry, 431 Jahn Laboratory *
> SUNY-College of Environmental Science & Forestry
> Syracuse, NY 13210 *
> 315-470-6597 djhughes@no.address *
> -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
> "When I was younger I could remember anything,
> whether it happened or not."
> Mark Twain (1835-1910); US writer and journalist.


Jennifer Gitlitz
Research Director, Container Recycling Institute

Home Office:
2 Pomeroy Ave.
Dalton, MA 01226
Tel. (413) 684-4746
Mobile: (413) 822-0115
Fax: (413) 403-0233
Email: jgitlitz@no.address

Please note the new address for CRI¹s main office:
Container Recycling Institute
1601 North Kent St., Suite 803
Arlington, VA 22209-2105
Tel. (703) 276-9800
Fax: (703) 276-9587

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