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Bio Product Implications

With all the good press that corn derived products such as biodegradable plastics and fuel substitues/enhancers such as ethanol I wonder if we have overlooked the big picture. I've read in more than one financial report that ethanol plants, biobased products and the companies that produce them are not as good of an investment that one may think.

Apparently, ethanol production is subsidized by governments so that the industry can get 'up & running' so to speak. Without the government subsidies this industry could hardly survive on its own. The problem is that it costs so much more to produce an ethanol type fuel then the current cost of traditional fuels.

I've also seen this high cost of production reflected in the high price of biodegradable plastics and bio-based materials that use vegetable based esters and byproducts as raw materials. And what do you think will happen to the price of these products if the price of the vegetable base goes up? I wonder what the implications are for other biobased packaging or biobased products based on for example, soybean derived products?

Will it be another case of the average consumer subsidizing big business through the cost of fuel, food and the increased cost of everyday household items?

Do not mis-understand me. I believe we should do everything possible to protect our environment and conserve our natural resources. Doing that is a good investment in our future. I am familiar with all the real advanatages and of good resource management, reduction of C02 gasses and the beneficial net effect to the atmosphere of using bio-based materials. It just seems to me that we need to find viable alternatives that are also cost effective. In the article below, Andrew Joseph speaks of how the devastating effect of Katrina also caused an increase in the price of fuel and plastics. He tells us that the price of corn has risen from $2 to $4 per bushel due to the demand for it in the production of ethanol and how this effects the average consumer.

It seems to me that the path we are on right now is not economically sustainable and perhaps someone needs to develop a better way. In the meantime have a read of the article below, re-printed with permission. It is food for thought.

Canadian Plastics magazine, editor Mr. Andrew Joseph


During the summer of 2005 after Hurricane Katrina helped cripple oil production in the U.S., people searched for an alternative to high-priced fuels. While affecting you and Joe Seph at the pump, increased gas prices also meant higher transportation costs for products; it even meant higher prices for plastics. As an alternative, companies touted corn and its derivative, ethanol.

Ethanol is moonshine—fermented corn that is distilled to produce pure grain hooch. As a fuel substitute, it has become a popular alternative, even though it isn't as efficient a fuel relative to gasoline. Corn needs to be grown via plowing, planting, watering, fertilizing and harvesting and that doesn't include the machines needed to do that. Then there's transporting corn to an ethanol plant where to alter it costs energy—and hey, if we want to transport the ethanol to a filling station, since it's more corrosive than gasoline it can't be transported through existing pipelines, but must instead travel via rail or truck – more fuel!

And what about the cost of corn? Thanks to unprecedented demand, corn has risen from $2/barrel to $4/barrel in the past year alone. And, while we up in North America may not have felt the pinch, high and rising corn prices caused the price of tortillas to go through the roof–with a semblance of normalcy restored after a government enforced price control. Will it hit us? It depends on how much we need our corn flakes, corn chips, popcorn, corn nuts or boxes of Old El Paso Mexican food kits, I suppose, though we do use corn syrup in our soft drinks and candy. While animals eat over 50 per cent of the corn, us–people–eat them... will that mean a rise on pork, chicken and beef prices? You betcha!

I know there's a difference between feed and sweet corn, but guess which variety will be grown more if the price for it keeps going higher? It'll also mean less corn available for us to eat which will also drive prices higher.
As energy sucking consumers, we need to create viable ethanol from plants other than corn–maybe even the corn stalk. And while I have talked about a lot of its negative faults, it does burn cleaner than gasoline... but, while corn ethanol is a great stop gap in getting us to stop burning gasoline, it's still not the cure-all for what ails us.

Somewhere in a field of dreams,

Andrew Joseph Features Editor Reprinted with permission, source: Canadian Plastics, magazine