It seems like scientists are finding ways to make practically anything out of corn! Demand for greener, natural, and biodegradable products has fueled many recent developments in manufacturing. Here’s a few products you may have heard of and some you probably haven’t!
Ethanol fuel is made by fermenting and distilling simple sugars from corn. Ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline and is derived from plants, a renewable resource, but it may cause other problems; it gets lower mileage per gallon, and unfortunately oil is required to plant, harvest, and process it, so currently it’s not sustainable as a wide-scale replacement for gasoline. On the other hand, unlike fossil fuels, it is possible to make ethanol yourself!
Bioplastics are being made using corn starch which, unlike conventional petroleum-derived plastics, will biodegrade. Bioplastics are being used in all sorts of products from plastic cups to garbage bags. Even the smallest items, like drinking straws, are available in corn-plastic varieties. KleerTech offers all kinds of biodegradable products including coffee mugs, ballpoint pens, windshield ice-scrapers, and even corn-based golf tees.
Carpet. That’s right, at corncarpet.com you can order carpet made using microscopic fibers of corn-based plastic tightly bound together into a rug. They boast it has superior stain resistance, resistance to wear and fading, exceptional softness, and low odor retention in addition to being good for the environment.
Electronics. Now, mostly this means electronics made with a corn-based outer casing like the Fujistu “Corn PC” or some of the new green phones on the market, but in the case of Hoshino’s new USB drive, the entire product is biodegradable. Most electronics are dangerous and difficult to dispose of, filling up landfills and leeching toxic chemicals into soil and groundwater. If more products can be modeled on Hoshino’s concept, it’s possible those dangerous electronics will become a thing of the past.
For a few years now, CDs made from corn-based polymers have been available on the market. These disks degrade after 50-100 years, meaning that users probably will not have to worry about losing their data over the disk’s limited lifetime. They as just as sturdy as CDs made from conventional plastics and function the same way.
Goodyear has recently announced a new corn-based tire tred which may cost less to produce and, because of its light weight, improve energy efficiency for vehicles using it. Unfortunately, less than 1/20th of the tire actually consists of the corn product and the rest is conventional rubber. In the future it’s possible there may be tires made derived mostly or entirely from corn.
Ingeo fabric is made using corn-based fibers and is being used in everything from clothing to bedding. You can even find it at Target! There’s been some controversy over the fact that Ingeo may use GMO corn, although the manufacturer claims this isn’t a problem because all genetic material is destroyed during processing. That’s a green debate for another day.
Considering the sheer amount of plastic waste going into landfills from packaging and everyday household items, widespread use of corn-based products could completely change the way we process waste and cut down enormously on the amount of trash that ends up being stored forever in landfills. The downside to this is that people with corn allergies may be irritated by contact with corn-derived plastics. It also doesn’t have the self life of regular plastics since moisture will eventually cause it to break down, meaning that it isn’t good for storing beverages or many food items long-term.
Of course, there are no easy solutions to environmental problems. An overabundance of corn is not necessarily good for composting, because it makes the soil too acidic, and most homeowners simply don’t have the capabilities to effectively compost the stuff. Recycling plants can’t do anything with bioplastics because they contaminate normal plastic resin. Some stores, such as Wild Oats, accept used packaging back and send it off for industrial composting, but most retailers don’t, and there’s no evidence that these plastics break down any faster in a landfill than normal plastics. Producing less waste to begin with is probably the most significant step we could take to cut back on the amount of garbage we generate. It’s worth remembering that biodegradable products are a place to start, but that there needs to be far more to green living than simply switching pre-existing business models to a new set of natural resources. Just because corn is a renewable resource doesn’t mean it will solve all our problems. There need to be some major changes to infrastructure and waste management before the majority of these products can be properly processed. But it is a start.
The most common green use for corn these days is for compostable cups, forks, plates, and spoons. This makes it much easier for school cafeterias to be eco-friendly by composting their disposable dishes. They are relatively inexpensive considering it only costs about $7 for 50 compostable cups with a heat resistance of 110 degrees (F).
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