Plastics – Under Eco Pressure

McDonald's Polystyrene Coffee Cup

McDonald’s Polystyrene Coffee Cup

We follow the plastics industry news closely. Our first recycled materials came from plastics feedstocks. We did not cause it to exist, so in an interesting way, we are not closely aligned with the plastics industry but it is because of them, that we can perform the service that is the foundation of our business. Plastics are not the only material we produce – there is also rubber and most recently cork (and the fact that it is a naturally growing tree, has been one of it’s deepest appeals to us personally).

The first plastics were derived from organic cellulose materials in the mid 1800s and made possible the first flexible photographic film used for still photography and motion pictures. Formaldehyde and milk protein combinations were explored next. Humanity has had a long love-hate relationship with plastics.

Tucker Tunnel / VersaTech Geofoam

Tucker Tunnel / VersaTech Geofoam

Polystyrene was first discovered in 1839. Generally, I have considered it a “problem” because it wasn’t easy to recycle it. However, large scale polystyrene recycling has been occurring in my own community in recent times. Only the very white and non-printed kinds can be recycled here but that includes those big bulky pieces often arriving with new computers for their protection in shipping. VersaTech of Fredericktown, MO supplied over 3,300 blocks at 38” x 50.75” x 192” each for just the first phase of a project to fill the Tucker Tunnel in St Louis MO. The tunnel was constructed in 1931 by the Illinois Terminal Railroad to alleviate traffic congestion and facilitate the transportation of goods and materials. The walls of the tunnel had become so unstable that they threatened a collapse of the roadway and tall buildings above it. The tunnel had also become a base for some of St Louis’ homeless population. VersaTech’s blocks are filling and stabilizing the tunnel and as a result, the spaces above it.

McDonald's Clamshell

McDonald’s Clamshell

In the late 1980s, led by the efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund, McDonald’s phased out the use of it’s clamshells, which were the packaging for it’s sandwich products. Under public pressures, McDonald’s switched from the polystyrene clamshells to paper-based wraps for its sandwich packaging, providing a 70-90% reduction in sandwich packaging volume, reducing landfill space consumed, energy used and pollutant releases over the lifecycle of the package. However, making environmentally sound choices is neither simple, clear-cut nor certain. There are always trade-offs – the cloth vs disposable diaper dispute, or the paper vs plastic grocery bag choice. When paper is involved, we’re talking trees, or in the best case recycled paper, but the FDA does not allow recycled content to touch food products directly. Still, innovative methods of embedding recycled content, and enveloping these in virgin materials, are evolving in response, as a solution.

Now, thanks to efforts by the “As You Sow” organization started in 2011, McDonald’s will switch the hot beverage cups in all of their restaurants to double-walled fiber alternatives. With more than 14,000 locations in the United States alone, its impact is likely to extend globally to all major McDonald’s markets. Yet, the choice is a sobering reflection that 58 billion paper cups are thrown away every year. This equates to 20 million trees being cut down and 12 billion gallons of precious water used in processing. Styrofoam cups degrade at a glacial pace. Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will still be sitting in a landfill. And polystyrene has become a large problem for marine environments. The material breaks down into small pellets that are mistaken for food by some marine life, such as birds and fish, often causing death. So, for environmentalists wondering about a better yet choice, try relying on a reusable, washable mug every day for a whole year.

Still, waste and such obvious issues are not the only problem with polystyrene. The EPA released a draft rule looking for safer alternatives to the flame-retardant chemical HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) used in polystyrene production for building insulation. The EPA is exploring a more proactive response than simply listing chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, indicating that they may pose a concern. Recently, with news of some dispute between the US Green Building Council’s proposed LEED modifications (that would have offered credits for avoiding PVC) and the plastics industry as a whole (especially the significant players in PVC pipe and Vinyl Window interests), the EPA is also taking a look at a standard, even if justified by business competition concerns, obstructionist argument of limiting the release of what is termed as “confidential business information”. Environmentalists have a good reason to be concerned that CBI claims could hide chemicals that might cause deep concerns.

The EPA is tightening policies for CBI claims and declassifying unwarranted confidentiality claims, challenging companies to review their existing CBI claims to ensure that they are still valid and providing easier and enhanced access to a wider array of information. These decisions on the part of the EPA are friendly to the intentions of the USGBCs requests for more transparency regarding the content of certain building materials, when considered for LEED points. It is not surprising that the EPA has felt intense opposition and lobbying efforts from the chemical and plastics industries, as has the USGBC.

A report on the concerns regarding HBCD in polystyrene insulation production has found 2 viable flame-retardant alternatives to HBCD for use in expanded and extruded PS foam insulation, applicable with currently used manufacturing processes. The EPA has been motivated by indications of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic characteristics associated with the chemical, HBCD. One alternative, a butadiene styrene brominated copolymer is already in commercial production in the US. Even though its long-term behavior in the environment isn’t entirely known, its characteristics indicate a strong reason to view it as having a low impact on any health or environmental concerns. Specifiers generally seek to avoid a known potential for undesirable consequences with the decisions that they make for the built environment.

Our company has struggled with our own concerns regarding one of the recycled plastics products that we offer known as Flexisurf. We pulled it entirely off the market, shortly after producing a large batch of samples for our market, because of our growing concern about this plastic in general, but mostly due to the impacts of its initial production. We have returned it to our product offerings because it is a positive response to the currently unavoidable presence of PVC materials in the form of high-volume production waste (from roofing membranes and automotive upholstery scraps), since we did not the cause the actual manufacture of the PVC material. Flexisurf creates a very durable and easy to maintain flooring and surfacing material, while keeping PVC out of landfills and away from the potential of entering groundwater. Sometimes, even the most environmentally aware, make difficult choices with no clear-cut “best” alternative. We seek to do the best that we know how, with the knowledge that we have, at the present time – and we never stop learning as much as we can. We are learning all the time and have no expectation of that necessity ending because the issues are always complex.

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
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2 Comments on “Plastics – Under Eco Pressure”

  1. kidsatuninow says:

    Very informative. I think the approach of seeking to do the best with the present knowledge is a great one. We can easily react negatively to something, for instance, plastics, without embracing and looking at some very real benefits to others.

    • debyemm says:

      It’s rarely easy. Plastics definitely provide some amazing possibilities for fulfilling Life’s needs. Thanks for expressing your balanced perspective regarding the material.


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