The War on Oil’s Cousin, Corn

18 02 2009

For the most part, corn and oil can be composed into very similar substances, except that corn can be made into edible syrup and oil cannot. Corn and oil can be refined to make both fuel and polymers for plastics.

Cash Crops

Cash Crops

Since the 1970’s corn has been turned into ethanol, a grain alcohol, to be mixed with refined petroleum (and other chemicals) to make today’s gasoline. You’ve probably noticed gas pumps that read “contains X percent ethanol.”

Gasoline Contains Ethanol

Gasoline Usually Contains Ethanol

Now, the incredible, edible corn is also used to make plastics.

However, is this a wonder crop, or is it causing more harm than good? The obvious benefit of corn plastic is that is it biodegradable. Within three months the polylactic acid plastic (PLA or bioplastic or biopolymer) will decompose if disposed in an open landfill. “Moreover, should you choose to burn it, you don’t have to worry about creating toxic fumes.” So if we all switched to making plastic from corn instead of from oil, we would have the chance to reduce CO2 emissions and our dependence on both foreign and domestic oil.

But, the combination of creating corn plastics and ethanol requires a whole lot of corn — which, theoretically would drive up the price of corn as a crop. Also, this much corn requires much more land than if it were simply harvested for food. But also, this much production would sustain and perhaps encourage the economy of many Midwestern states like Iowa.

According to one environmental journalist, Robert Bryce, the production of ethanol, not bioplastics, causes, “higher global food prices, increased air pollution from burning ethanol-spiked fuels, spreading dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico from a surge of fertilizer use, and strong evidence that growing a gallon of corn ethanol produces just as many greenhouse gases as burning a gallon of gas.”




3 responses

19 02 2009

I remember being in elementary school when the corn fuel debate first started. Good post.

23 02 2009

I’ve studied this a lot in my environmental studies classes, and although I think corn has a lot of great environmental benefits, it really is a terrible thing that we are growing to depend on it so much as an alternative to fossil fuels. Not only does it take up a tremendous amount of land, but the amount of corn that goes towards fueling Americans’ cars could be feeding thousands of starving people around the world. Corn is one of the staple crops that poor nations depend on to feed their growing populations, and as we continue to exploit it for its many non-edible uses, it becomes unaffordable for nations that badly need it. As if that weren’t bad enough, it does nothing to teach people the more important message of conservation. Americans need to learn to use less and give back more, taking food out of hungry mouths to fuel polluting vehicles is just not right. I think it’s important that people become more educated on this topic as it becomes a central concern of our generation. Good work nallo!

23 02 2009

Thanks Maddie! Well said!

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