I’ve been a little lax lately with my blog, so my apologies. You know when the weather changes and you get distracted by all sorts of new things? Well, it happens to me and this time, I was distracted by an overwhelming sense of lazy. Luckily, lazy can get old and I am back to paying attention to what’s important—well, at least trying to.
So my friend Jessie sent me this really fascinating article from the Portland newspaper on plastics made from corn. I was overall really impressed with the article because it did a really nice job of rounding out the facts. Essentially, the article tries to point out that, while the idea of a biodegradable plastic is nice, without an effective structure with which to deal with said plastic is in place, it’s really no better than conventional plastics. Plastic made from corn is a great advancement, especially considering that it uses some of the surplus corn that we would otherwise ingest as calories and turns it into the plastic products we’ve all come to rely so heavily on. However, it is not the answer to all of our problems.
The article starts out with the good: “PLA, or corn plastic, is made with Midwestern corn, not Middle East oil. Its production releases fewer toxic substances than making petroleum plastic and uses less energy, spewing an estimated two-thirds less greenhouse gas.” A spokeswoman for NatureWorks, one of the primary corn plastic manufacturers, put it another way: “It’s made from plants that can be grown in 100 days, not oil that takes 100 million years.” So OK, the plastic is good since it lessens our dependency on oil and produces a smaller carbon footprint than traditional plastics manufacturing. This plastic also gets its great rep for being biodegradable, a fact which would let us all continue to rely on disposable plastics without adding to landfill waste.
The bad part comes along when you consider that this biodegradable plastic “composts only in high-temperature commercial composting systems, not backyards. It’s difficult to distinguish from regular plastics in the recycling mix. And a small amount can foul recycling of conventional plastic…” So now that we are all conditioned to recycle our plastics, especially here in California where a high percentage of plastics are accepted, we’re told that this new magic type of plastic, which is virtually indistinguishable from other types, is a danger to our other recyclables. I have several problems with this. One is that there is very little information about what to actually do with your corn plastics when you’re ready to dispose of them. I have a corn plastic container from Rainbow Grocer in my fridge right now with some delicious cilantro pesto, but my building doesn’t collect compost. What do I do with it when I’m done?
Well, the manufacturers recommend recycling it, calling contamination worries “overblown.” However, they have “agreements with customers to slow distribution if ‘serious contamination’ shows up in a market.” That’s all well and good I suppose, but what good are these new plastics to us if we can’t actually compost them as they are meant to be composted? Granted, the production of these plastics creates less pollution, but they are ending up in landfills where they are as unlikely as traditional plastics to breakdown. Plus, when they do end up being recycled, these corn-based plastics have a good chance of contaminating the plastic that is meant to be recycled.
Whole Foods actually managed to make my final argument for me. Wild Oats was one of the early purchasers of corn-based plastics, but when the company was bought out by Whole Foods, the plastics were dropped because of concerns about genetically modified corn. “Whole Foods packages use plant fiber and compostable cardboard instead.” While I agree that relying on corn for plastics production is better than relying on oil, I think we would be better off growing less corn and returning to traditional farming methods rather than finding ways to turn it into a new product. Or, even better, reduce our dependency on plastics! I don’t always agree with Whole Foods and their relationship with food, but I think they did the right thing here. If there are plastics alternatives that don’t get involved in the messy genetically modified corn industry and don’t potentially taint plastics recycling, I think that is the better route to head down.
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