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Nature Works has figured out how to make plastic out of corn. (Ex0artefact)

Corn Plastic to the Rescue

Wal-Mart and others are going green with "biodegradable" packaging made from corn. But is this really the answer to America's throwaway culture?

Many ecologists argue that companies should produce consumer goods that don’t pollute the earth in their manufacture or disposal. In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the architect William McDonough writes about a future in which durable goods, like TVs and cars, are made from substances that cycle back into the manufacturing process, while packaging for short-lived products, like shampoo, will decompose back into the earth. NatureWorks says it wants to be part of that future. As the company’s former CEO, Kathleen Bader, told Forbes magazine, “We’re offering companies a chance to preempt embarrassing demands for responsible packaging. Brands that wait for legislative fiat will be left behind and exposed.”

Eric Lombardi, president of the Grassroots Recycling Network and a leader in the international Zero Waste movement, takes a nuanced view of PLA’s progress. He says it’s “visionary” even to think about biologically based plastic instead of a petroleum-based one. True, he says, there are problems with PLA, “but let’s not kill the good in pursuit of the perfect.” He suggests that the difficulty disposing of PLA reflects a larger deficiency in how we handle trash. He’s calling for a composting revolution. “We need a convenient, creative collection system with three bins: one for biodegradables, which we’ll compost, one for recycling, and one for whatever’s left.”

Until such a system is in place, it’s going to be hard to have cheap convenience packaging and feel good about its environmental effect—to have our takeout cake and eat it too. But the manufacture of PLA does save oil and generates far less air pollution. And we have to start somewhere.

Elizabeth Royte, a resident of Brooklyn, is the author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Photographer Brian Smale is based in Seattle.

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