I was not surprised that at least three writers responded to my inflammatory letter regarding renewables, specifically, bottles made from corn. [“Lack of alternatives is problem, not farms”; “Letter writer can't see future through corn” and “Claim about farming doesn't hold water,” June 20].
I'd like to respond to three of their comments.
Mr. Stephens is “tired of seeing … landfills spring up all over America [because] plastics are not biodegradable.” Well, as it turns out, landfills by design are aseptic. This means biodegradable water bottles will not biodegrade in a landfill. Not in our lifetimes, and not in our children's lifetimes, anyway. For this bottle to work as intended, a significant overhaul of solid waste stream public policy, infrastructure and reshaping of the general public's habits is required.
As an alternative, I suggest focusing on the creation of clean water systems. I think we can all agree that clean drinking water from the tap has greater ecological benefits than, say, water delivered in a bottle that used significantly more topsoil, potable water and petrochemicals in its production.
I found Mr. McBrayer's suggestion that we drive around Europe to smell cow manure interesting. Plane ticket pricing might cost more to fly to Allentown, Pa., but from there, on a fresh spring day, one can drive through hill-and-dale farm fields and detect the very same odor from the very same farming practice.
Manure on farm fields returns nitrogen to the soil that the green bottle took from it, aids in moisture retention and uses a resource that would otherwise go to waste. Seems like a good idea, right?
It should now come as no surprise that I have a better alternative: greatly reduce or eliminate the production of manure. Would it surprise the three writers to know that about 75 percent of U.S. corn production is allocated to animal feed? It takes a mind-boggling amount of resources to produce and deliver manure, and for that matter its byproducts —meat, milk and leather. I propose the direct benefits of this change in the public's meat and manure habit include returning vast amounts of cornfields and grazing pasture to “nature.” Collateral benefits? Here are a few: reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, reduced top soil erosion and reduced use of potable water. (Anyone care to guess how much of our limited potable water supply is required to make a pound of beef? Answer: Between 441 and 5,214 gallons, depending on whose science you believe.)
Finally, and briefly, I agree with Mr. DeSellems. The trout fishing in Arkansas is world class. However, this is more a result of cool water flowing from hydroelectric damns than it is farming practices. Also, some of my Arkansas-born friends insisted I clarify that I do not come from Arkansas. They merely tolerate my migration here. I am, in fact, a big-mouthed Chicagoan enjoying extremely low real estate tax rates in The Natural State.
In the end, the greatest challenge to “saving the planet” appears to be good problem definition. In my opinion, polyethylene, polypropylene and PET bottles are not the problem, or at least only a tiny part of the problem. In a way it makes sense that the green plastics left would focus on alternatives to petrochemical-based plastics as a solution to problems. Unfortunately, in the process they appear to have missed identifying much higher-value problems and solutions. Why? Moving the big pieces such as what humans consume and how they consume it is hard to do. (Happily, a reduction in tobacco consumption proves it can be done.)
At best, using a green bottle to save the planet is like bringing a squirt gun to a wildfire. In its current state, PLA and PHA technology begs for greater scrutiny prior to commercialization. Indeed, some of the science indicates it may be a net contributor to “the problem.” At worst, it provides a “feel good” news blurb in Plastics News which lulls the general public into thinking some faceless third party is coming to save your planet and that “system shifts” within the general public's behavior will not be required.
I hate to have to point out the obvious, again, but business leaders are here to serve stockholders, not the planet or the general public, which is exactly why Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical Co. have allocated resources to develop new uses for corn. Their motive is profit. If the invisible cost of increases in carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions resulting from the biodegradation of their corn-based bottles does not appear on their income and balance sheets, their financial statements will still be GAAP compliant.
And as a right-wing, pro-business, conservative hawk, I reluctantly propose that much of this topic matter should fall squarely inside of a public-policy creating U.S. Congress untainted by soft money (or any money) and willing to make the tough calls. This of course will not happen. It is more likely that these policy issues will end up in the after-the-fact damage assessing judicial branch as it performs its function of making victims whole.
The three writers may wonder why I did not respond to the issue of soil erosion head-on. Answer: Because it is a foregone conclusion. One statistic for you: The topsoil we lose from Iowa would fill 165,000 Mississippi River barges a year. So much for farmers being effective shepherds of the soil.