The “Eco” Corn Cup: Trojan Horse for GMOs. ~ Graham Markel

Via elephant journal
on Feb 9, 2010
get elephant's newsletter

corn cup

My verrry eco-minded friend, Waylon Lewis, lives on “the Hill” [a neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado next to the University of Colorado].  He runs, an online blog that focuses on yoga, organics, active citizenship and sustainability, among other things.

One of the perennial biggest issues plaguing Waylon’s neighborhood are the red Solo cups littered all over the ground. The red cups are made from petroleum based plastic (PET). A direct descendant of a party culture full of kegs and beer pong, they’re notorious on campuses around the nation (beer pong is a game played with beer, a table, and most importantly, 20 of those infamous red cups. It can be seen played at most parties these days, and is only growing in popularity).

One day after hearing Waylon complain about the cups for the 80th time, I suggested we start marketing those biodegradable cups made out of polylactic acid (PLA), more commonly known as corn plastic. They’re already made, of course—by Boulder’s own Eco Products—and popular with eco-minded party people everywhere. Waylon added the idea of making the cups a solid green. We figured the cups would sell themselves, greening college campuses, concerts, sports events…

As we looked into the cups a little more, we found some major problems. The corn used in these cups comes from big-business-owned, genetically modified, federally-subsidized monculture corn. Additionally, the PLA is extremely energy intensive to produce—probably one of the more ridiculous uses for what would otherwise be food.  And finally, the cups aren’t really compostable—they need to be taken to a recycling center, not your compost heap, where they can be “composted” at high temperatures. PLA may be better than petroleum based plastic; but other things, such as recycling or using good old fashioned glass or porcelain partyware are better earth-friendly options.

Corn as a renewable resource is, of course, not bad in itself. The problem begins with the major companies that grow most of the corn in the United States. The main producers of corn in the U.S. are Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, and Cargill Incorporated.

If Cargill, based out of Minnesota, were a publicly-traded company, it would be one of the ten biggest Fortune 500 companies. As a privately-owned and operated company, its empire encircles agriculture. Cargill imports and exports grain, salt, cotton, and meat from 65 countries all over the world. Being one of the world’s biggest companies, its main goal is profit. To produce these big profits, Cargill has turned to science and GMOs. By modifying the corn, they claim to have increased the amount grown on acre by almost 40 percent in 40 years. Due to modifications, the corn is now more resistant to disease, pests, and herbicides than ever before. The stalks are thicker, to withstand wind storms and to make it easier to harvest.

Cargill also owns NatureWorks. NatureWorks, with accounts like Walmart, produces most of the PLA in the United States.

GMOs are not natural, and remain largely a mystery to many Americans. What we do know is not as scary as what we don’t know.  An example from about the nature of GMOs: “Genes from an arctic flounder, which has “antifreeze” properties may be spliced into a tomato to prevent frost damage.”  One of the main bonafides fore PLA is the notion that it’s (technically) compostable. That’s all good and dandy if the corn is organic and non-GMO. But no one knows when the seeds of GMOs become intermingled into other foods. I for one would not want antifreeze on my compost, or in any of my food for that matter.

An article by Elizabeth Royte in the states that, “according to a biodegradability standard that Mojo helped develop, PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days. What’s a controlled composting environment? Not your backyard bin, pit or tumbling barrel. It’s a large facility where compost—essentially, plant scraps being digested by microbes into fertilizer—reaches 140 degrees for 10 consecutive days.

If PLA is put into a landfill it can last as long as PET; 100 to 1,000 years. It can be recycled, but not in the same recycling plant as PET products—if enough PLA gets mixed in with petroleum plastic, it can gum up the works. Traditional recycling plants must pay to get the two sorted and pay to ship the PLA elsewhere.

It’s crazy energy intensive to make “plastic” from a kernel of corn. It takes as much petroleum to make a petroleum-based plastic as it does to make a PLA cup—defeating the eco-responsible purpose. PLA is made in a wet mill, and it takes gallons and gallons of water to soak and process the corn into plastic (all my research on the web seemed to back that up). Ethanol, a similar process, is also laughably energy-inefficient.

We still need to look at the bigger issue of how many containers are being used per day. Everybody knows the feeling of buying a new electronic device…and needing the jaws of life to get it out of all the packaging! We still need to be recycling the old plastics we have in existence. For things that need to be durable, like televisions, recycled petroleum plastic is a better answer. PET is a better alternative for things that are not already successfully recycled like packaging. And paper packaging is still a better alternative when possible.

There are companies, such as Eco-Products, that produce some organic non-GMO cups. The demand is out there, and companies are listening. Cargill and its subsidiary, NatureWorks, are starting to make a small amount of “clean” PLA. Companies are out to make money, remember: so if we the customer demand it, the companies will eventually do it. After all, it was the demand for an alternative to PET that led to the market for PLA.

To quickly throw some more fuel on the fire—amidst questions of the morality of turning food into packaging when so many people in the world are hungry, the Smithsonian Magazine quoted Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, “already we’re converting 12 percent of the U.S. grain harvest to ethanol,” he said. The USDA projects that figure will rise to 23 percent by 2014. “How much corn do we want to convert to nonfood products?” Brown asks.  It is no secret that there are hungry people in almost every corner of the world. So, why do we need to use land that could be used to grow food to satisfy our beverage craving.

The world craves a renewable fuel source that will solve the current energy crises. People are looking for a silver bullet to calm their fear of peak oil and climate change. Corn ethanol and PLA are the current bullets. However good they may become, they are only a piece. Using all three parts of the recycling motto can make more of a difference. We should first reduce, reuse, recycle. Then make more stuff out of corn.

Waylon and I got ahead of ourselves with saving the world one beer pong game at time. The first thing we should be doing is picking up the red cups and recycling them. We could start a program to encourage others to do the same. Once that is a success we could start to realize our dream of a world full of green organic non-GMO PLA super cups!

Video about GMOs and the corporations that control them

“King Corn” trailer talks about corn production in America today


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


11 Responses to “The “Eco” Corn Cup: Trojan Horse for GMOs. ~ Graham Markel”

  1. A better option from Eco Products:
    For Immediate Release
    Courtney Given
    The Fresh Ideas Group
    303.449.2108 ext.23
    [email protected]
    Eco-Products expands spectrum of green packaging options with FDA-approved cups made from 50 percent recycled PET bottles
    Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing to be first customer
    BOULDER, Colo. (Feb. 11, 2010) – Eco-Products, the nation's leading brand of single-use food service products made from renewable and recycled resources, today announced the introduction of a clear cold beverage cup made from 50 percent recycled PET bottles – more than double the amount of recycled content currently available in a clear cold cup. Seizing the opportunity for a greener option than virgin PET (a thermoplastic polymer used to make containers carrying the #1 resin identification code), Colorado-based New Belgium Brewery will be the first customer to use the new recycled content cups.

    An Eco-Products customer since 2005, New Belgium was an early adopter of compostable cups for their events, but like many of Eco-Products' clients, the brewery supplements its compostable cup use with conventional plastic products where waste diversion through composting is not available.

    "Using recycled content cups from Eco-Products will allow us to cut our use of virgin plastic, specific to festival cups, in half," said Bryan Simpson, director of media relations at New Belgium Brewery. "Sustainability challenges often require more than one solution, and we look forward to putting these new cups to use where the collection of our compostable cups is not available. This is an important part of our ongoing effort to limit the environmental impact of our operations and events," Simpson said.

    "What we are finding is thatour customers need multiple options when it comes to reaching their sustainability goals for food service," said Bob King, CEO of Eco-Products. "The launch of this new cup is another step toward our goal of offering complete solutions in the form of products made from both renewable resources, as well as recycled content," King explained.

    Eco-Products' line of recycled content cold cups is ideal for the food service buyer looking for an affordable green option that delivers on performance (strength and heat tolerance) while decreasing the use of virgin plastic resources.

    The new recycled content cups complement Eco-Products' existing line of products made from both renewable resources and post-consumer recycled materials supplied nationwide to restaurants, hotels, events, sporting stadiums, national parks and corporate cafes.

    The new cups are offered in 9-, 12-, 16-, 20- and 24-ounce sizes and are available for custom design and branding.

    # # #

    About Eco-Products Inc.
    Eco-Products is the nation's leading brand of single use food service products made from renewable and recycled resources. Its products are, relative to their traditional counterparts, gentler on the environment because they require less energy to produce, emit less CO2 into the air and make diversion from landfills an option at end of life. Visit for more information.

  2. randomsubu says:

    Just because the arctic flounder has antifreeze properties, and the tomato is modified to include the relevant gene, does NOT mean the tomato has common antifreeze (as cars use.) That is just ignorant fear-mongering.

  3. Great article with well thought out, sourced points. I try to avoid corn-based products when possible for exactly these reasons. What about the "plastic" made from sugar cane? Does it have the same issues?

  4. […] snacks and pie and some great local beer and a trash bin wherein we dumped recyclables, compostables and trash. We’ll sort ‘em!, I was assured, and in Bogusky I […]

  5. Tee says:

    I don’t suppose it would ever go over, but a program I’d like to see implemented is similar to that of getting, say, five cents credit each for using your own reusable bag when you’re at the grocery store check-out. Carry your own 16 or 20 ounce cup, or whatever…companies could even manufacture them like some convenience stores do for travel mugs for coffee. If you have your own bottle, you get a discount. The beer is on tap, so it’s not touching anything…wouldn’t that solve some of the problem of waste? I don’t like beer, and bring my own bottled tea wherever I go, but I think there’s a plan here that could be very successful. Indeed, I think it’s already proven to be successful in markets close enough to this that it’s almost guaranteed to create a niche.

  6. Tee says:

    *said manufactured bottles would be made of recycled materials, of course.

  7. shadeofgreen says:

    The first thing we should be doing is picking up the red cups and recycling them. We could start a program to encourage others to do the same. Once that is a success we could start to realize our dream of a world full of green organic non-GMO PLA super cups!

    Recycle all the red cups you want, and see you disappointment when the facility just adds them to the landfill waste. Even Eco-Cycle will not accept these cups as they do not fit their shape requirements. Hate to burst your bubble, but less than 20% of plastics dropped at a recycling facility will actually be used.

    As for non-GMO corn. Find me a large quantity of non-GMO corn grown stateside. Sure, Europe grows plenty, but thanks to saturation in the industry mixed with cross-pollination, you'll be lucky to find any "truly Non-GMO" corn. It's an ugly truth. Natureworks could make non-GMO corn based plastic, but the cost (environmental and financial) of importing the corn would be just as appalling as your preference to petroleum based cups.

    Your search for the holy grail of green will simply drive people away from making any changes. I appreciate that some companies are offering products that are an improvement even if they are not the best they can be.

  8. […] with an unidentified extremely famous friend (okay, Dr. Andrew Weil) Click here for more on why “biodegradable” corn cups may not be so eco-responsible, after all. Paul Cattin, owner, with an unidentified extremely famous friend (okay, Dr. Andrew […]

  9. […] PE is a petroleum based coating on paper cups that can slow down the process of biodegrading. PLA is a biodegradable bio-plastic coating used on some paper cups. PLA is a renewable resource and […]

  10. […] We were able to drop two days off of our dumpster pickup.” The savings allowed them to go to corn ramekins, which are also biodegradable, including all of the straws, napkins, and even the salad dressing […]

  11. […] their own whole grains to mill themselves, testing all feed and ingredients to ensure no trace of GMO. Straus was the first Photo: Erin […]