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June 26, 2005

Corn For Plastic

The nice thing about high oil prices is that they make new technologies more cost-effective. Take Cargill, a company that has figured out how to replace petroleum in manufacturing tasks with corns and biomass, and is suddenly able to do it on the cheap:

When Cargill launched its factory in 2002, its pellets were far more expensive than equivalent material made from oil. Wild Oats Markets, an early customer, paid 50% more for takeout containers made from the bio-plastic.

But over the last two years, the Cargill plant has gotten more efficient — and oil prices have soared.

The result: The "corn-tainers" in the deli now cost Wild Oats 5% less than traditional plastic, Wild Oats spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele said.

Huh. Maybe all our presidential candidates can promise to powercharge this process, thus paying tribute to Iowa's farmers in a non-useless manner. Huzzah!

June 26, 2005 in Energy | Permalink

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» Corn-Based Plastic Much Cheaper from sustainablog
From Ezra Klein, news that Cargill's corn-based plastic has dropped in price... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 27, 2005 9:39:16 AM

» Corn-Based Plastic cheaper than oil from Mitra - Natural Innovation
I think this is important, as non-petroleum based and other renewable products start passing non-renewables then suddenly the demand starts to rise, which kicks in economies of scale that make the price difference even higher. This article is one of... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 28, 2005 8:15:57 AM

Comments

Why is the corn input so cheap? Because corn is made with petrochemical fertilizers. As oil becomes pricier, so too will they, and corn, and hence these corntainers.

This looks to me like the same hype as biodiesel. It is, of course, much more efficient to burn oil directly than to make it into plants and burn them.

Posted by: Allen K. | Jun 26, 2005 2:19:30 PM

Allen, were that true, then burning oil directly, as plastics currently do, would be cheaper than using corn. It's not. That's kinda the point.

Posted by: Ezra | Jun 26, 2005 2:38:59 PM

On the one hand, yay, I'm glad to see scientists trying to reduce our dependency on oil. On the other, this freaks me out. My mother is severely allergic to corn. She can't even handle envelopes and postage stamps because there are traces of corn in the adhesive or take most OTC medicines because they use corn starch as a binder. I can't imagine what life would be like for her if corn became prevalent in plastics and other materials.

Posted by: Becks | Jun 26, 2005 3:01:38 PM

Sure, corn made today using fertilizer made yesterday using oil from the day before is cheap (being heavily subsidized doesn't hurt either). All I'm seeing here is a temporary opportunity for arbitrage. That's kinda my point.

Posted by: Allen K. | Jun 26, 2005 4:08:28 PM

Actually, the article specifically stated that the cost was lower despite the fact that oil is used to grow the corn because less oil is used to produce the same amount of plastic. Sunshine provides the main energy source for producing plant life, nitrogen plays a smaller role.

Posted by: J Bean | Jun 26, 2005 4:13:45 PM

re: Becks' comment,

What they're producing is _plastic_, not some corn-starch based thing. A year or so ago Fuji (I think it was Fuji) bought an entire production run to use in making CDs. You don't make CDs out of starch.

Corn is an input to the process, they have a proprietary bug in giant fermenters that eat the starch and exude plastic (there's a lot of handwaving in that last bit).

Posted by: Hank | Jun 26, 2005 10:53:49 PM

Thanks for the clarification, Hank. If that's the case, this sounds much more mature than the corn-based containers I remember reading about in Wired a couple of years back that still retained a lot of "corn" characteristics. They were being hyped for their biodegradability and were just kind of glorified pressed corn starch. If this is a real plastic, that's a different story. I read the article but that aspect must not have sunk in. Thanks.

Posted by: Becks | Jun 26, 2005 11:45:30 PM

Hi Becks -
I remember them too. Didn't McDonalds try to use them for sandwich containers?

I must admit to having a bit more knowledge about the process than was imparted in the article; a friend of mine works there. And she's told me a bit about the process (Safe Harbor: without giving away any inside information, blah, blah, blah). Seeding a million gallon fermenter is pretty scary. You'd better hope your bug is producing exactly what it's supposed to and that you have _no_ contaminating bugs in the mix.

Posted by: hank | Jun 27, 2005 2:53:47 PM

There are less oil intensive methods of farming that are less efficient, but more cost effective when oil spikes.

Your yield per acre is reduced, but not massively. It's a balancing act that has been tilted towards increased oil use when it was cheap. The example I was given was a 25% reduction in petrochemical use only reduces grain production by 10%, but those percentages are dependent on the specific grain and the specific area.

Humans have been growing corn a hell of a lot longer than they have been using oil.

Posted by: Bryan | Jun 27, 2005 10:39:51 PM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 9:23:20 PM

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