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Corn Plastics also Pose Environmental Problems

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Lindsay Evans•updated: 8/6/2010

Corn plastics are a popular new alternative to petroleum-based plastics, but some issues need to be considered before switching to corn plastics. Also, there are good options to help you avoid both kinds of plastic.

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    Why Corn Plastics?

    Corn plastics may be an improvement over traditional petroleum-based plastics, but corn plastics present problems and drawbacks. There are also more sustainable alternatives to both types of plastic.

    A few years ago, Whole Foods started advertising their new to-go containers and utensils made from corn plastics. Since then, corn plastics have gone more mainstream and are widely used for cups and packaging. They are touted as an eco-conscious alternative to traditional plastics made with petroleum. As the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels, corn plastics seem like a great breakthrough. But don't raise a toast to your corn plastic cups just yet. Here are the positive and negative aspects of corn plastics, and some good alternatives.

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    Corn Plastics Positives

    The biggest plus, of course, is that corn plastics are made from renewable corn starch. This also means corn plastics will biodegrade, but not as quickly as some suggest. In terms of kitchen safety, corn plastics are freezer-safe and are not believed to emit chemicals into food, even at relatively high temperatures.

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    Corn Plastics Negatives

    The biggest drawbacks regard disposal of corn plastics. As noted, corn plastics will biodegrade, but it will still take hundreds of years. The corn plastics cannot be recycled and must be separated from traditional plastic in recycling containers. In fact, the corn plastic can jam the plastic recycling process and reduce the amount of plastic that is recycled.

    Corn plastics retailers like to say the products are compostable, but that is only true for large commercial composting facilities. Corn plastic will just sit in a home hot composter or worm composter. Commercial composting facilities, which are few and far between, instead use microbes to help decompose organic matter.

    Corn plastics also present many of the same questions and issues as ethanol. The corn plastics industry is using more cropland to make industrial products rather than food. The World Bank has repeatedly said ethanol and other biofuels are driving up the cost of food and contributing to growing global food shortages.

    Finally, corn plastics are typically made from genetically modified corn that is not organic.

    Eco-conscious consumers will have to decide if they think the benefits outweigh the costs of corn plastics. The products may still be better than traditional petroleum-based plastics, but there are more eco-friendly alternatives.

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    Other Options

    You can easily find ways to avoid disposable utensils and dishware made from any kind of plastic. Consider bringing a reusable container to restaurants or supermarket delis. You have to move the food into these containers for the microwave anyway, so save a step.

    Reusable containers can also be a good way to help cut calories. Before you start eating a large restaurant portion, put some of the food in your reusable container and you won't be tempted to overeat. You'll also have a lunch for the next day.

    In coffee shops, insist on ceramic or glass cups whenever possible. You can also bring a spoon and fork with you for stirring and eating, or find smaller, ecologically responsible options such as wood stirring sticks.

    Finally, if you want more sustainable disposable dishware, check out Verterra's plates made from fallen leaves. The items are compostable at home, microwave-safe and can reportedly withstand higher temperatures than dishes made from corn plastics.