Chemistry

Corn Plastics use in South Africa



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A corn plastic, more scientifically known as Poly lactic Acid (PLA), is biodegradable polyester made mainly from the renewable resource corn starch (Royte, 2006). Corn plastic is an eco friendly plastic which can replace the non-recyclable PET plastic which is made from the non-renewable resource Oil. The poly lactic acid is compostable which means it will biodegrade into simple organic compounds under specific conditions (Royte, 2006). 

A poly lactic acid is made from corn kernels. The corn is soaked in sulphur dioxide and water at a very high temperature (Guzman, 2009). This enables the bonds within the corn kernel to loosen and this will allow the corn kernel to be ground (Guzman, 2009). Therefore the gluten and fibre will be able to separate from the corn kernel (Lamb). The dextrose will ferment under the presence of bacterial cultures and it will form into a lactic acid (Lamb). The lactic acid will then form a long polymer chain which is the building block of any plastic (Guzman, 2009). The end product will result in small white pellets of poly lactic acid which can be melted down into different plastic containers (Guzman, 2009). The corn used to produce poly lactic acid is from Corn Farms harvest around the world (Guzman, 2009).

 A popular overseas grocery store Wal-Mart decided to convert their PET-based plastic containers, which packaged fruit and vegetables, to corn-based plastic packaging (Royte, 2006). Another store Wild Oats adopted corn-based plastic packaging and found a largely positive response from customers because of the plastic originated from a renewable resource (Royte, 2006). Wild Oats store also offers to recycle any used corn plastic, which they will intern, take to an industrial composting facility (Royte, 2006).

In South Africa Corn Plastics are still a very new concept and no research is conducted into biodegradable plastics because of the lack of demand of corn plastics from South African retail stores (Goldwyer, 2007). The reason for this is the limited availability because Corn Plastics are not produced in South Africa currently, so therefore all corn plastics have to be imported which brings in an extra expense (Goldwyer, 2007). Although one of South Africa’s leading retail stores Woolworths has already began to use corn plastics in the packaging (Goldwyer, 2007). Woolworths is researching biodegradable plastics (Susman, 2008). Woolworths is also limiting their use of corn plastics, by packaging their food products, such as their take away sandwiches, in cardboard (Susman, 2008). 

 The cost of corn plastics has decreased considerably since it was first created (Gardner, 2009). In South Africa corn plastic costs as little as R1 per cup (Heckl, 2002). The cost is minimal because of the fact that low grade corn is being used (Gardner, 2009).

 Economics defined means “the branch of social science that deals with the production and distribution and consumption of goods and services and their management.”[1]If related to corn plastics, it would mean how well we manage and control our production and distribution of corn. South Africa is a developing country and our main source of food, for the general population, is maize. If South Africa decided to change their use of PET plastics to corn plastics, then that would mean a portion of our maize production would go towards creating plastics. Essentially there would be less food for the population. This links in with the moral issue of making plastic out of corn which is in essence a basic food product (Royte, 2006). The question can be raised whether or not we should really be using corn to make plastic when there are millions of starving people in Africa? The corn plastic industry responds to this question by stating that only low grade (animal feed) corn is used for corn plastics (Gardner, 2009).

Corn plastic decomposes under very specific conditions, which would require a specialized composting facility to recycle corn plastic. If corn plastics replaced PET plastics then no new jobs would be provided, the same jobs would just be kept by the same people. Another problem related to recycling is the fact that if any corn plastic is mixed up with PET plastic then the end result will be damaged and the plastic will not be recycled (Jeffrey, 2007). Essentially the recycling process of corn plastic is quiet complicated and would require skilled workers. In my opinion I think all developing countries should be encouraged to recycle and reduce consumption of plastic to aid in the battle against global warming and pollution, but I do think developing countries should adopt simple and easy to complete recycling projects. South Africa specifically should learn to become less reliant on plastic.

Therefore it is obvious that corn plastics would be such a massive undertaking for a poverty stricken developing country to control because of the lack of resources and money. In contrast developed countries such as America, should undertake the production of corn plastics. Developed countries have the resources and money which will enable them to undertake the task of corn plastics and the recycling of these plastics. 

 Overall the production of corn plastic instead of PET plastic would definitely help our planet in the battle against pollution. PET plastic is made primarily from Oil. Oil is one of the planets most valuable resources because it is non-renewable; oil also releases carbon dioxide when combusted which contributes to global warming. PLA plastic is made mostly from corn. Corn is a renewable resource and does not emit toxic pollution when combusted and therefore would not contribute to global warming. Corn plastics can biodegrade under the correct conditions, quicker than PET plastic, and can then be easily recycled.

 In conclusion corn plastics are a far better option instead of PET plastics, but the production of corn plastics should only be undertaken by developed countries. On the whole the world should reduce their use of plastic and should not resort to finding another more eco friendly alternative.  


[1]WorldNet, Princeton University.

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