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Written by Laura Li   
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Thursday, 01 November 2012

Made from Corn

The sun rays beam in through the window and the song birds start to chirp, bringing the start of a fresh new day. What you don’t know is that from the moment you wake up, corn will play a huge role throughout your everyday life. Of course corn is in many food items, such as popcorn, cereal, and anything that is made of corn syrup or corn starch, but it is much more than just an ingredient used in cooking.

7:30 AM: It’s time to wake up and brush your teeth, so grab that toothbrush and that tube of toothpaste! Toothpaste relies on a stable and good-quality compound known as Sorbitol which will keep the toothpaste thermally and chemically stable.1 Sorbitol is a corn based mixture that is distilled from corn kernels and is commonly used as a sweetener, but is also used in toothpaste for taste and stabilizing because it “is a low calorie, water-soluble, bulking agent.”2 So, from the moment you brush your teeth in the morning, corn has already played a role in your day.

8:00 AM: You probably want to listen to the radio while you drink your coffee and breakfast (which is probably partially made with corn). If the radio is powered by a battery, corn is allowing you to hear your daily traffic and weather forecast. Have kids? The crayons3 you pack in their school bags use corn as a binder. The plastic bags that contain their lunch most likely contain corn products and one day very soon so could their backpacks and your clothing. Corn is in the development stages of making its way into the enormous textile industry!4

8:30 AM: You get into your car to get to work. The convenience of driving from place to place with ease is thanks to the corn used in the rubber of the tires (well not just but most likely soon),5 the car battery (maybe),6 and certainly the gas in your tank comprised partially of ethanol fuel.

9:00 AM: Now begins a day of work. In many environmentally friendly offices across the
globe, recycled paper is preferred to virgin paper. When recycled paper was first introduced, the quality of the paper was very lack luster. In order for that recycled paper to compete with the durability and texture of regular ol’ copy paper, corn starch is used to make sure recycled paper isn’t flimsy and weak. Want to post a reminder to yourself for later that day? Well, pin it on your cork board! That cork board is made of corn as well. From the ink to print documents, to the shades on the windows to keep the work space cool, corn makes up a large majority of everyday items found in your very own office—and probably your home as well!7

12:00 PM: Lunch time! Everyone knows that corn is an edible product and is used in many foods in the form of a sweetener, corn meal, corn starch, or just a dish on its own. However, did you know that every bite of meat you have is a result of corn production? Because of corn’s large availability and the ability to be grown year round, corn meal is the feed of choice for meat producers everywhere. This is not exactly healthy for the livestock.9 For example, cows are meant to be grazers and eat the leafy greens of the plains, but they are fed corn on a daily basis, causing them to be in deficit of the proper nutrients to ensure healthy life (and therefore, healthy meat for us).

5:00 PM: When the end of the work day comes, your home welcomes you. It is time to take care of the children and pets. As you enter your home, you pass a lovely family portrait, which was produced on photographic film.10 Photographic film requires antihalation backing or powder to reduce reflections of light in pictures,11 which is commonly made of corn starch. If this is a cat household, thank corn and corn meal for the fact your house does not smell like the dead end of a street alley. Some cat litter is made of corn based products to absorb and eliminate odors and moisture. However, there have been some studies done that corn based kitty litter is not the safest due to corn’s reaction with moisture, creating aflatoxin mold12 that can kill those that ingest it.

10:00 PM: The day has come to an end and before you sleep, you just want to rest and read a nice book. Corn is also commonly used as an adhesive which is found in book binding,13 so thank corn for being able to flip a page of a book. The adhesive quality of corn is being researched further so it can be used more in light of the excess of corn germ due to the continual production of ethanol , another corn based product. Corn germ is a byproduct of the separation of corn created during the production of ethanol.14

So why is corn used in so many products?

Corn is a crop that has been manipulated to grow abundantly and regularly. The United States is the world’s top corn producer, claiming over 40% of global corn production,15 and experts say that corn production could increase dramatically this next year.16 Each ear of corn has many kernels that can be changed into the proper material necessary to create the products discussed earlier in this article. The versatility of this crop makes it very attractive for companies that can use corn based materials in their products. Not only is it widely available and diverse in its applications, but corn has become an ingredient that people look for in products because it seems more “green.” Because of a new desire to become more “natural” in our industries, more and more products are trying to incorporate corn to replace other inorganic chemicals. There is no complete list of the many products made of corn, but Utah State University provides one of the most complete lists. This invariably leads to the food versus fuel and other product debate. As hunger becomes an increasingly dire and widespread issue in the U.S. and the world, many people argue that corn should only be used for food and not to power our vehicles or other non-essential to survival products.

The popular film, Food Inc.,18 implies our dependence on corn is a negative, but I do not think it is so black and white. Although corn may not be the best product to feed our livestock, it remains beneficial in many ways. It intakes carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, like all plants/crops do, so having large plots of land dedicated to growing corn is somewhat environmentally beneficial. Although increased dependence on corn may not be nutritious for us or for the animals we feed it to because we need a balanced diet, increased industrial use of corn is a positive move because we are using more natural elements in our everyday lives. Who knew one crop could become so integrated in our world! Finding more sustainable ways to grow the corn crop should be a top priority as it does not appear that our use of this crop is going to go down anytime soon, and perhaps that is a good thing for our environment.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 01 November 2012 )


Green Facts

  • An aluminum can that is thrown away instead of recycled will still be a can 500 years from now!

  • Bamboo absorbs 35% more carbon dioxide than equivalent stands of trees.

  • Glass can be recycled over and over again without ever wearing down.

  • A steel mill using recycled scrap reduces related water pollution, air pollution, and mining wastes by about 70%.

  • Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make the material from scratch.

  • Americans throw away more than 120 million cell phones each year, which contribute 60,000 tons of waste to landfills annually.

  • 82 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from burning fossil fuels.

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die prematurely worldwide every year due to air pollution.

  • Turning off the tap when brushing your teeth can save as much as 10 gallons a day per person.

  • 77% of people who commute to work by car drive alone.

  • Nudge your thermostat up two degrees in the summer and down two degrees in the winter to prevent 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

  • Recycling 1 million laptop computers can save the amount of energy used by 3,657 homes in the U.S. over the course of a year.

  • In the United States, automobiles produce over 20 percent of total carbon emissions. Walk or bike and you'll save one pound of carbon for every mile you travel.

  • Every week about 20 species of plants and animals become extinct.

  • For every 38,000 bills consumers pay online instead of by mail, 5,058 pounds of greenhouse gases are avoided and two tons of trees are preserved.

  • Recycling for one year at Stanford University saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

  • If every U.S. household turned the thermostat down by 10 degrees for seven hours each night during the cold months, and seven hours each weekday, it would prevent nearly gas emissions.

  • Refrigerators built in 1975 used 4 times more energy than current models.

  • A laptop consumes five times less electricity than a desktop computer.

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  • You will save 100 pounds of carbon for each incandescent bulb that you replace with a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), over the life of the bulb.

  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year.

  • One recycled aluminum can will save enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours.

  • States with bottle deposit laws have 35-40% less litter by volume.

  • You will save 300 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 10,000 miles you drive if you always keep your car’s tires fully inflated.

  • In California homes, about 10% of energy usage is related to TVs, DVRs, cable and satellite boxes, and DVD players.

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  • American workers spend an average of 47 hours per year commuting through rush hour traffic. This adds up to 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic each year.

  • Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial fleet of airplanes every 3 months

  • A tree that provides a home with shade from the sun can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime.

  • Less than 1% of electricity in the United States is generated from solar power.

  • Shaving 10 miles off of your weekly driving pattern can eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

  • A single quart of motor oil, if disposed of improperly, can contaminate up to 2,000,000 gallons of fresh water.

  • Recycling 100 million cell phones can save enough energy to power 18,500 homes in the U.S. for a year.

  • You’ll save two pounds of carbon for every 20 glass bottles that you recycle.

  • It takes 6,000,000 trees to make 1 year's worth of tissues for the world.

  • Current sea ice levels are at least 47% lower than they were in 1979.

  • Washing your clothes in cold or warm instead of hot water saves 500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and drying your clothes on a clothesline six months out of the year would save another 700 pounds.

  • Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute.