Corn Plastic: Pros, Cons and Inspiration

corn plastic

A small obsession of mine has been the quest for truly environmentally friendly packaging and eco-friendly ways to deal with it once its use comes to an end. I hate plastic and everything being so darn landfill-bound or down-cycled (recycled into lesser materials until it eventually turns into trash). I always choose minimally packaged goods when possible. For example, there is a soap brand at Whole Foods that comes without any packaging, which I think is awesome.

I try to create as little trash as possible in the world. I would like to be able to bring my lunch to work every day in reusable containers or eat at sit-down places where food is served on real plates and bowls so that packaging isn’t an issue. However, like many busy adults, that ideal may only happen 50% off the time (at best). That is where pre-packaged food comes in.

How do I know it’s corn plastic?

For one thing, I look for the Greenware logo, a major purveyor of corn-based packaging. Next, if you look on the bottom of the container it will have the number “7” on it. This is the code for miscellaneous plastics that do not fall under the other number codes for plastic. You must also see “PLA” underneath the number so you know it is the corn-version of miscellaneous plastic. PLA, as defined by Wikipedia, is an acronym for Polylactic acid or polylactide. It is a thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch (in the United States), tapioca roots, chips or starch (mostly in Asia), or sugarcane (in the rest of the world).

Is corn plastic a solution?

Is corn plastic good? Is it bad? Does it really remedy our petroleum polluting, non-biodegradable plastic dependency? After some heart-felt contemplation and some research, I say corn plastic or PLA is a step in the right direction, but needs to evolve much more to make it truly earth harmonious.

Potentially, plant-based plastics can be an enlightened approach to our petroleum problem. There is something beautiful about a product that is designed so that once its use is finished, it can be returned to the Earth and nourish it. Wouldn’t it be great to give back to the Earth that gives us so much, in a dance of co-creation and reciprocity? Granted, human habits are a far cry from this kind of thing, but I believe, the potential of plant plastic holds the seed.

However, our current way of sourcing corn plastic and lack of eco-friendly disposal pose problems. Here is a list of pros and cons for corn plastic:

Pros of Corn Plastic (PLA)

• Corn plastic uses corn, a renewable source, while the petroleum that creates conventional plastic is a finite source.

• Corn plastic is compostable at industrial facilities.

• Corn plastic is competitively priced with regular plastics like PET and, perhaps, will get more cost effective as petroleum prices continue to rise.

• Corn plastic production uses 65% less energy and creates 68% less greenhouse gasses than conventional plastic.

• Corn plastic contains no toxins.

• Shifting away from petroleum use means shift away from devastating oil spills and non-biodegradable petroleum plastic.

Cons of Corn Plastic (PLA)

• Corn plastic is most often made from GMO corn – an environmentally damaging way to grow corn.

• Conventionally grown corn is a monocrop, which depletes the soil, among other ecosystem maladies.

• Corn plastic is only compostable (in a reasonable time span) via industrial composting facilities, which tend to service businesses and are not open to the public.

• Corn plastic takes an estimated 100-1000 years to biodegrade in a landfill. Landfills are so tightly packed and sealed that no light and little oxygen are available to assist in the process.

• Consumers will unknowingly dump corn plastic containers in with their regular PET recycling which can contaminate the PET recycling stream if it happens in large quantities.

• Commercial Composters use microbes to break down organic material. Large amounts of corn plastic in a composter would cause problems because it breaks down into lactic acid which is wetter and more acidic. It can be broken down but it requires more oxygen for the microbes to consume. Commercial facilities would have trouble providing enough oxygen for large amounts of corn plastic to breakdown.

I am an innovative idealist at heart and I believe the cons of corn plastic all have solutions. Hopefully, as the collective green consciousness evolves, new solutions will be implemented.

The future of non-GMO corn plastic:

Just as organic, fair trade coffee is now making its way into mainstream places like Connecticut Muffin (victory!), I believe non-GMO corn plastic may also become popular in the future. It was difficult to find non-GMO corn plastic companies in my research, except a few companies such as Novamont in Italy, Plantic in Australia (who produces corn plastic medical equipment, no less) and the repeated, inspiring mention of Stonyfield ’s efforts to create their corn plastic from as much non-GMO sources as possible.

Solutions that speak to the con’s of corn plastic:

I believe through increasing public awareness and consumer demand, industrial composting could be made available to consumers. Currently, I return my corn plastic containers to the garbage of a retailer that I know composts them (I get most of my corn plastic from them so it is convenient), but I seek to minimize my use of corn plastic, knowing its downsides. Intuitively, I feel that even if all our corn plastic were to be non-GMO, we should still minimize our use of it, as it is an energy intensive process to create and compost.

Another potential solution to corn plastic’s monocrop GMO-ness is to use other plant sources such as switchgrass. Switchgrass has the added benefit of not cutting into the food supply. Not to mention, there is a way to industrial compost large amounts of corn plastic that do require any oxygen at all: anaerobic digestors. These are microorganisms that do not require oxygen to sustain themselves..

I offer these solutions not as the ultimate solutions, but as brain teasers to open our consciousness to new possibilities and potential. Perhaps, there are even better solutions than what I have mentioned. Don’t settle too easily in your green journey for win-loose, compromise scenarios. They may be steps in the right direction and bridges to new frontiers, but let’s keep expanding on the idea of what is possible and spreading the awareness with love!

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11 responses to “Corn Plastic: Pros, Cons and Inspiration

  1. You are definitely causing me to think about corn-based plastic differently. I rarely see it outside of restaurants, so had not considered the problem of recycling it as a consumer. I’ll be keeping it in mind in the future…. This is one of those areas where a little bit of education could go a long way!

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