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Community forum: ‘Natural’ products fail to deliver

I encountered my first ever compostable, “this-cup-is-made-of-100%-corn” item a few years ago at Boloco (“globally inspired burritos”) in downtown Burlington. Little did I know that my smoothie to-go order would influence my thinking for years to come.
The popularity of these products is on the rise, and I now find compostable take out containers (bio-products) all over. But the thought that goes through my mind each and every time I use one is the same: Is this really any better for the environment than the conventional plastic container? Of course, I also often find myself thinking I wish I had brought my own reusable container with me in the first place. Nonetheless, we Americans like to take things on-the-go and even my environmentalist father doesn’t have a Tupperware or coffee mug with him every moment of the day.
With brand names like NatureWorks and Eco-products it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that their bio-containers are “natural” and close to the environment. However, the process by which these containers are made is in no way “natural”; in fact, the corn itself is not even natural. Instead, this corn is genetically modified, produced through monoculture, sprayed with herbicides and pesticides and grown in industrial farms hundreds of acres wide. According to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the corn is then harvested, dried, transported to a new location where the starch is extracted from the kernel, hydrolyzed to turn it into dextrose, sent to ferment in a new facility via pipeline, fermented into lactic acid using various chemicals, purified, and separated from excess water.
Once this process is complete, the corn has been transformed into a polymer (plastic) called polylactic acid (PLA). In the form of pellets, it is then sent off to be molded in some manufacturing plant elsewhere. In my opinion, right around the “hydrolyzed to turn into dextrose” stage of the process is when we’ve gone beyond the realm of natural and into the realm of does-anyone-even-know-what-this-is-anymore?
However, the “natural-ness” of these products is not the only misleading information presented to us. As consumers, we are told that these products are compostable. Great news! Right? In reality, if any one of us were to compost a bio-container in our backyard it would never decompose, at least not in our lifetime.
Instead, the products are compostable according to BPI and ASTM standards. As Elizabeth Royte explains in her article “Corn Plastic to the Rescue,” this means that they will decompose in “controlled composting environments” where material is heated to 140 degrees for 10 consecutive days. A study done at the School of Packaging in Michigan State suggests it takes not 10, but around 30-45 days to compost these products in an industrial facility. Furthermore, according to Royte’s article there are fewer than 120 of these plants nationwide, which makes composting a pretty unlikely option.
What is a likely option is the choice to recycle, and I myself have been guilty of throwing a bio-product in the recycling now and then. As consumers, not only are we unaware that the products compost solely under certain conditions, but we are not told that they can’t be recycled. After all, PLA does not melt down the same way that conventional plastic (PET) does. Unfortunately, whether thrown in a home compost or sent to a landfill, these bio-products won’t decompose much, if any, faster than conventional plastic.
Much like its end of life, a bio-product’s birth, beginning in the cornfield, is not as environmentally friendly as we would have hoped.  Growing this corn is only detrimental to the very earth that we are trying to save. Large-scale agricultural practices strip the land of nutrients, eventually leaving it bare and infertile. Such farming relies on heavy machinery that does almost all of the labor and consumes tons of fossil fuels. If these bio-containers are so renewable, how do you explain their very dependence on corn grown with non-renewable energy?
My point here is not to call you out for taking food to go. Rather, I wish to bring to your attention the fact that as consumers we must look deeper. Deeper into where a product comes from, who makes it and what materials are used. We must question not only the product’s beginning, but its end — where will go? What will it become? For how long will it remain? To live sustainably we cannot rely on corn, nor can we rely on the constant production of new, disposable goods.
I do not see this reliance changing without a collective change in lifestyle. Our pace of life is getting faster and faster each day. Maybe the question is not how to make a zero-impact, disposable container for each individual to take on the go, but how to slow down as a species. Must we relearn how to sit, eat and breathe? What ever happened to the days of the plate?
 
This week’s writer is Rosalie Wright-Lapin, a Middlebury College student and Cornwall native.

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