It's summertime, so we figured, why not take a look at the energy we burn doing summer stuff and what's being done to increase our energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact? Whether it's at the beach, at the ballpark, visiting a national park, or having a picnic. Now, let's start with that picnic and those plastic forks and spoons you use and then throw away. Since plastic is made from petroleum, you might as well be pouring crude oil down the sink. But now some companies have found a way to grow utensils, sort of. They're using bioplastics, usually made from corn, with no crude, and are biodegradable. Bioplastics are becoming increasingly popular in the restaurant business, but critics say there's also a downside, as Dan Goldstein tells us in this "energyNOW!" Spotlight.
[GOLDSTEIN] Did you know, in this country alone, we use nearly 40 billion of these plastic spoons, knives and forks a year? That's enough to fill the entire National Mall several times over. Utensils like these are made from hard plastic. And most get sent to landfills, where it takes thousands of years to decompose. They also use up a lot of oil. It takes more than a million barrels a day to make all the plastic we use. But there is a way to make it without using oil and without filling up our landfills. It's called bioplastic.
Good to meet you.
[SCHEER] How are you?
[GOLDSTEIN] Good. So we're going to learn how one of these is made?
[ASSURAS] This is Frederic Scheer.
[SCHEER] I'm going to show you all the secrets.
[GOLDSTEIN] He's a chemist by trade, but he's also the owner of Cereplast, a bioplastic manufacturing company here in the middle of corn country -- Seymour, Indiana.
[SCHEER] This is either corn or tapioca. We can use also wheat, rice, and other kind of materials.
[GOLDSTEIN] The starch from those materials are heated and then converted into a biopolymer. That's the building block of bioplastics. The biopolymer is then formed into these pellets, called resin. The resin is then sent to factories like this one in Tijuana, Mexico, where they can be put into regular plastic-making machines, saving money on building new machines. The price of oil also makes a big difference.
[SCHEER] We have realized that the price of oil is such, at $100 a barrel, we are at parity on all our hybrid or sustainable products, which is making it very attractive.
[GOLDSTEIN] And potentially helping to save some space in those landfills. Bioplastic utensils can break down in a matter of months.
[SCHEER] We can make those kind of products out of corn, send them to compost site. In 180 days, they go back to nature and the cycle goes again.
[GOLDSTEIN] But there's a catch.
[ANDREW HUG] A lot of land that used to be in conservation plantings is being taken out.
[GOLDSTEIN] Andrew Hug is an environmental analyst. He says if we grow more corn for things other than food, the farmland won't get the break that it needs.
[HUG] The more you've got soil that's exposed like this, the more erosion you get and the more we lose our ability to grow food in the future.
[GOLDSTEIN] Scheer says that doesn't have to be the case.
[SCHEER] Here at Cereplast we have taken a commitment, and that commitment is that within the next three to five years, 30% to 40% of all our feedstock and all the resins that we'll be manufacturing will come from non-food-related material. Either cellulosic material, and also algae byproduct material.
[GOLDSTEIN] But there's another issue. For bioplastic to be considered biodegradable, it must decompose 60% in 180 days. But according to a study from North Carolina State University, if it does decompose quickly, it gives off methane, a greenhouse gas.
[MORTON BARLAZ, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY] If it decomposes in less than two years, then that methane all goes to the environment, and probably doing more harm than good.
[GOLDSTEIN] To avoid that, bioplastics need to be composted, and that can get expensive. Earlier this year, when Republicans took control of the House, they ditched the bioplastic tableware in Capitol cafeterias, saying the cost of composting them -- almost a half million dollars -- wasn't worth it. But that doesn't mean bioplastic flatware isn't catching on elsewhere. Just a few miles from the Capitol is Ted's Montana Grill in Arlington, Virginia. George McKerrow is the CEO.
[McKERROW] Customers, our guest base, are looking for restaurants that are on the leading edge.
[GOLDSTEIN] McKerrow switched to bioplastics for takeout meals at all 46 of his restaurants. They still cost him more, but he says that would change if the rest of the industry followed suit.
[McKERROW] If McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, any of them, would go out and bite the bullet at first, and we could actually get the supply of these elements, prices would actually go down.
[GOLDSTEIN] What's not going down -- the bioplastic market. In fact, the use of bioplastics has tripled since 2006. Frederic Scheer is projecting that in five years, bioplastics will be a $5 billion market worldwide.
[SCHEER] One of the things I'm very proud of is that the products that we are making are American products, made with American workers, with feedstock which is coming from our country. Look at what we have done here -- we have created about 70 green jobs, and we anticipate to create even more than that.
[GOLDSTEIN] So bioplastics has the potential to be good for the economy, and good for the Earth. In Seymour, Indiana, Dan Goldstein, "energyNOW!"
[ASSURAS] You can now find most bioplastic tableware at supermarkets and superstores. They do cost more, but as oil prices rise, so will the price of regular plastic, making bioplastics more cost competitive. Also, many bioplastic retailers now offer their stuff online, and we can help. To find a list of bioplastic companies that can deliver biodegradable picnic items straight to your door, go to our Web site, energyNOW.com.
Plastic waste is piling up in America's landfills, but there's a solution: bioplastics. Correspondent Dan Goldstein tells us how these products are made, who's helping to put them in wide use among consumers and how they can help both the environment and the economy. Dan also shows us why some people are concerned about both the production and disposal of bioplastics, and what the industry is doing about it.
Frederic Scheer, CEO of Cereplast, explains the process for making bioplastic resin, how his products can be safely composted, and how his industry contributes to the green economy. Next, we visit a factory in Mexico, where the resin is molded into plastic tableware. Dan interviews Andrew Hug of the Environmental Working Group, who says he's concerned that growing additional corn for non-food use will use unnecessary land and keep the soil from being replenished with nutrients it needs to sustain food crops. Dan also looks at the industry's response to a study from North Carolina State University that reveals how decomposing bioplastics can release methane into the atmosphere. Finally, we hear how the restaurant industry is adopting bioplastics from George McKerrow, CEO of Ted's Montana Grill.
Last Wednesday was a big milestone for people who care about public health and a livable climate. Two utilities announced the planned closure of nine coal plants.Read more ...
Today, in the UK, the world's oldest nuclear power plant shut down.Read more ...
The U.S. led the world in clean energy investment in 2011, but China retained the top spot in the latest Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index from Ernst & Young.Read more ...