Better Plastics & Other Options

Pacific Ocean Plastic Island

Pacific Ocean Plastic Island

A lot of people hate plastics, especially environmentalists. We don’t hate plastics and we are environmentalists. That’s because we take recycled #2, #4 and #5 plastics and recycle them into panels used for construction applications like countertops and restroom partitions as well as some consumer products such as furniture, lamps, cutting boards and clipboards. However, realistically, plastics are winning and that isn’t an entirely good thing and that is where the hate, on the extreme, and the dislike on the more average end of the spectrum comes from. There were a lot fewer plastics in my life as a child growing up in the 60s. And the pioneers that settled our part of Missouri, depended upon glass and metal, and because they had no recycling options but the reuse or melting down they may have done for their own requirements, we continue to find their debris here and there in our forests – for they thought nothing of haphazardly burying their wastes.

Facing realities about plastics – they require fossil fuel production in their manufacture, they mostly are not biodegradable, though some resins can be recycled – some can’t – and the mass of humanity doesn’t (it is estimated that only 1/4 of 1% of the 7 billion lbs of PVC plastic alone is recycled each year in the US – our Flexisurf material DOES recycle some of this waste). That is just one; and it seems that PVC is one of the world’s more common and most toxic plastics.

So, for today’s blog, I went exploring around and found some interesting information about plastic alternatives and research into making more “environmentally friendly” plastics. Some of the alternatives my own family employs because we know that even our own recycling and re-composition-ing of plastics is minor, compared to the total amount of plastic waste that is out there. The best advice for living a sustainable lifestyle is still – reduce, re-use and recycle.

Plastics: Environmental Preference Spectrum  ~ developed by Tom Lent

Plastics: Environmental Preference Spectrum
~ developed by Tom Lent

RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENTS

[1] PDCs (prodegradant concentrates). Adding compounds that may promote oxidation processes to break down plastic into fragments that microorganisms happily gobble up, sounds like a good thing and it reportedly is. So what’s not to like ? They are useful in single-use plastic applications and reportedly result in no harmful residues once the process is completed. However, it is not easy to identify which plastics have these additives and which do not. The consequences for the recycler in today’s processes can be catastrophic, causing a failure in contaminated resins, reducing their lifespan. An example would be irrigation pumps fabricated from recycled polyethylene, when contaminated by PDCs.

[2] Milk Protein. Casein-based plastic is actually an OLD idea, around since a French chemist treated casein with formaldehyde in the 1880s to make a substitute for ivory and tortoiseshell. However, this proved too brittle for applications beyond jewelry. Modern scientists have learned that adding silicate clay that has been frozen into a spongelike material creates a polystyrene-like material that degrades completely at the landfill and is made even less toxic by substituting a glycerine based chemical for formaldehyde.

[3] Chicken Feathers. The disposal of chicken feathers is a BIG waste problem (more than 3 billion lbs per year in the US alone). Chicken feathers are predominantly keratin, which is tough and durable (think hooves and horns). When chicken feathers are processed with a liquid found in nail polish, a plastic is created that is stronger and more resistant to tearing than plastics created from soy or starch. Chicken feathers are definitely a constantly renewing resource. It is also believed that chicken feather plastics will prove biodegradable.

[4] Liquid Wood. A biopolymer that looks, feels and performs much like plastic but is biodegradable. The resource for this plastic is pulp-based lignins, considered a renewable resource. These lignins are a byproduct of paper mills. When mixed with water and exposed to high heat and pressure, they create a modable composite material that is strong and non-toxic. It is believed that this plastic could be recycled with other wood products.

[5] Polycaprolactone (PCL). Synthetic polyesters, while not sourced from renewable resources, are finding a welcome role in biomedical devices and sutures because of their slow but certain degradation. Adding cornstarch to the manufacture of this material reduces it’s cost and it may have future applications in food-contact products.

[6] Molasses (PHA Polyesters). Feed sugar to certain types of bacteria and you are producing plastics. These biodegradable plastics closely resemble man-made polypropylenes. They are currently finding applications in packaging, films and injection-molded bottles. Though a high cost of production has slowed the development of these, corn-steeped liquor, molasses and “activated” sludge may one day supply the sugar that these bacteria require to product plastics that are compostable utilizing the same anaerobic workhorse of many biological treatment facilities.

[7] Corn (PLA Polyesters). These plastics are made from lactic acid, produced by fermenting the starches created during the wet milling of corn. Other similarly processed plants are wheat and sugarcane. PLA has enough rigidity to replace polystyrene and PET with the benefit that it decomposes and does not emit toxic fumes when burned. The manufacture of this plastic uses up to 50% less fossil fuels. Blending in starch reduces the cost and increases the biodegradability further. Applications include bottles, bags and film. If scientists can make it stronger and more heat-resistant there may be additional applications in the automotive industry.

Alternatives to Plastic
ALTERNATIVES

[1] Glass. We love glass. For Christmas, our family replaced plastic straws with glass straws. We love the fact that glass doesn’t leach into our food products. Glass is easily recycled and made from sand. It is a renewable resource in every way. But it isn’t easy for us to recycle glass (we have to haul it 50 miles away); and it is bulky and very heavy and can break. Glass can be dangerous and cause bleeding. Stepping on broken glass in waterways is NOT fun and is often banned by officials protecting such recreational resources.

[2] Stainless Steel. It has been around for a long time. We depend upon it for utensils, kitchen sinks, medical uses, teeth, food storage and water bottles. Though corrosion-resistant, the grade matters, including regarding the leaching of metals. It is a mixture of a variety of elements, not always but sometimes used – iron, chromium, carbon, nickle, molybdenum and titanium. Stainless steel is non-magnetic. Keep in mind that stainless steel is one of the most environmentally efficient raw materials available, as well as being recyclable.

[3] Reusable Shopping Bags. We employ cloth and insulated bags on our grocery shopping trips. We also recycle any of the thin plastic bags we do bring home from various retail establishments. Many stores have collection facilities for these. Nothing is uglier than a plastic bag let loose into the environment by its holder. Enough said !!

[4] Choose cardboard and glass for packaging. Look for products that fulfill your needs that do not use plastic in their packaging. This makes the waste materials more eco-friendly by being easier to find recycling options for that waste.

[5] Be a thoughtful consumer. Buy products with careful consideration to their composition and packaging. Online, you can visit “Life Without Plastic“, a website that promotes alternative choices for a wide diversity of products. Alternatives include glass, wood, stainless steel, bamboo, hemp, cotton, wool, khadi, cellulose and recycled paper.

[6] Re-use or recycle. EVERYTHING YOU CAN. Respect and appreciate every resource the planet and the people who inhabit it provide for all of us. Don’t simply be a mindless consumer – give back and respect.

Of course, we wouldn’t wish to dissuade anyone from recycling their plastics – our business depends upon that. However, there is such an abundance of plastics in our modern lives that we can confidently suggest that you broaden your perspectives about plastics beyond simply hating them and consider developments and alternatives as part of your eco-friendly lifestyle mix.

~ Information Resources

“Top 10 Eco-friendly Substitutes for Plastic” by Maria Trimarchi and Vicki M Giuggio posted at How Stuff Works.com – http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/sustainable/5-plastic-substitutes.htm

“What are some alternatives to traditional plastics ?” posted at Curiosity.com hosted by Discovery – http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/some-alternatives-to-traditional-plastics

“Life without Plastic” – A one-stop shop for safe, high quality, ethically-sourced, Earth-friendly alternatives to plastic products for everyday life – http://www.lifewithoutplastic.com/store/our_products#.U0GE7rdOXL8

There are many reasonable articles at “ReUseIt.com” – this one caught our attention – “Plastic Island – Nasty, Gargantuan & Growing” posted back in August 2008 – http://reusablebags.typepad.com/newsroom/2008/08/plastic-island.html.

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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