Today’s lesson in the complexities of environmentalism comes courtesy of DuPont. The specialty-chemical company announced recently that it and Tate & Lyle will expand their bio-products joint venture in Tennessee to boost output of a corn-derived polymer by 35 percent. The product, technically known as 1,3 propanediol, is mostly turned into fibers that DuPont sells under the Sorona brand name to make commercial carpeting and apparel.
The companies see nothing but blue skies from converting corn kernels to carpet. DuPont notes that the bio-substitute allows it to use a third less oil-based material in its Sorona fibers, while Tate & Lyle points out that the JV plant consumes 40 percent less energy and emits 20 percent less climate-affecting gas than if it were refining petroleum. And as everyone knows, corn is a renewable resource that doesn’t have to be tankered to the U.S.
That’s all well and good, but there’s more to the math than that. Corn growers received almost $4 billion in federal subsidies last year, the most of any farmer group, according to a new report by Environmental Working Group. Analyzing ethanol emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that the corn-based fuel is better for the atmosphere than petroleum-based fuels. But it also has found that when all greenhouse-gas outputs are added up, from clearing farm acreage to transportation, production methods don’t always meet federal standards of lowering emissions by 20 percent.
(Transforming corn into alcohol is a different process than turning it into a liquid feedstock for plastic, but not that different.)
One of my colleagues at Bloomberg News, in this article, also has linked greater diversion of corn into refineries as a reason for rising beef and pork prices, by increasing feed prices. Tate & Lyle, which has four U.S. corn refineries and processes 2 percent of the U.S. crop, cites figures showing that 40 percent of the 2008-09 harvest went into the broad category of food, seed, and industrial use. That’s up from 22 percent in 2004-05, and the increase is all due to greater industrial use such as ethanol production.
DuPont says expansion of the bio-polymer plant, which originally cost $100 million and opened three years ago, will start in June and should be completed in early 2011. Of course, it alone won’t change the earth’s balance. As a Tate & Lye spokesman tells me in an email: “The volumes of corn used in this process are very small when seen in the context of the total market.” But I’d like to know what you think: Do the pros turning corn into an oil substitute outweigh the cons?
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