What is corn plastic?

corncob pipe
Fear not. Corn plastic hasn't replaced the corncob pipe yet.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

For years, the corncob pipe was a fashion accessory best left to hillbillies, Frosty the Snowman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. While the look is no less bumpkinish today than it ever was, corn is showing up in the production of more everyday items -- and without resembling a prop from "Hee Haw." What looks like normal oil-based plastic at first glance is actually polylactic acid (PLA) plastic made from specially processed crops.

That's right: corn plastic. You can drink coffee out of it, put groceries in it, wear it and even hang ten on it on a corn plastic surfboard. Most important, you can turn corn into plastic and avoid dependency on petroleum. Much like corn ethanol, corn plastic allows us to make a comparable product out of a renewable resource, as opposed to oil reserves that will one day run dry. In addition, since corn can be cultivated throughout the world, market value doesn't hinge on relationships with oil-rich nations or on peace in the Middle East. After all, have you ever seen "No blood for corn" printed on a T-shirt?


The United States uses 20.8 million barrels of oil per day, 10 percent of which goes solely to the production of conventional plastic such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) [sources: CIA World Factbook, Jewell]. Bioplastics like corn plastic, however, don't require oil and, as a bonus, their manufacture releases fewer toxins and greenhouse gases.

­Plus, while normal plastic has a nasty habit of sticking around for centuries after disposal, corn plastic boasts the ability to biodegrade in mere months. Moreover, should you choose to burn it, you don't have to worry about creating toxic fumes.

In this article, we'll look at how a corn stalk turns into a plastic garbage can and why some critics aren't convinced that bioplastics are necessarily a godsend.