Squeezed Out ?

Financial Squeeze

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from my weekly blogs here. There was an unexpected but necessary trip to spend Thanksgiving with my aging parents, followed by the need to prepare a traditional kind of Christmas for my children. The week day placement of the year-end seasonal holidays this year were not totally conducive to business interests in general but were highly supportive to taking a bit of time to focus on family and rest once the 25th had passed. It’s been difficult to get back into the routine even with January arriving as my intentions last Sunday to resume my blog were waylaid by considerations for this year’s tree plantings on our farm by a visit to a highly experienced tree planting couple in another county.

This year begins with our attention once again on the issues facing our business due to an increasing acceptance of information known as Health Product Declarations. I have previously written about these efforts in this very blog. However, today I feel that some history – both regarding our businesses materials and this movement – is probably useful for me to share with you.

1973 Oil Embargo

I remember the 1973 oil crisis as I was recently both graduated from high school and trying to live independently of the parents who raised me as a newly wed. In October of 1973 OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo that endured until March 1974. OPEC started the embargo in response to American involvement in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Six days after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise military campaign against Israel to regain territories lost in the June 1967 Six-Day War, the US supplied Israel with arms. In response to this, OPEC announced an oil embargo against Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US. In the aftermath, the United States initiated a wide variety of policies to contain their future dependency on imported oil.

Living on minimal income, I remember prices at the grocery store changing weekly and the impact on the price increasing and availability/rationing of gasoline. A focus on conservation and strategies to reduce demand began to have effects on everyday life. In 1974, a national maximum speed limit of 55 mph was imposed through the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. Year-round daylight saving time was implemented from January 6, 1974 to February 23, 1975. In 1976, Congress created the Weatherization Assistance Program to help low-income homeowners and renters reduce their demand for heating and cooling through better insulation. The energy crisis led to a greater interest in renewable energy and spurred research in solar power and wind power.

There has been no going back to less awareness when it comes to aspects of energy use in our country ever since. I believe the history that I have shared is the background to the establishment of The US Green Building Council in 1993 whose mission it has been to make cost-efficient, energy-saving green buildings a more common reality. In March 2000, the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system was unveiled. The program has been very successful in educating the architectural and interior design communities and in creating very energy-efficient buildings. Yet, there is a downside even to such desirable success – Sick Building Syndrome.

SickBuildingSyndromePaper

Governmental health experts admit that there is no specific identifiable cause but a reduction in air flow due to tighter buildings is certainly one explanation. Architects and interior designers sensing some personal responsibility for a higher incidence of malaise related to their success have turned their attention now to making certain that the interiors of buildings become “healthier”. This is the impetus behind Health Product Declarations.

Therefore, the industry now has a Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Yemm & Hart wholeheartedly supports the intentions behind this for transparency, openness and innovation in the product supply chain. The Health Product Declaration is meant to be an impartial tool for the accurate reporting of product contents and each ingredient’s relationship to the bigger picture of human and ecological health. It is an admirable goal.

However, we are finding the application of this to be far from impartial. We are experiencing coercion from OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) who utilize our materials in their product and from the Architectural and Design firms that we have depended upon to specify our product in building construction projects. We feel that while we completely understand and support the reasons for this development, it feels to us as though it will squeeze out all of the initiatives have have developed along with a greater awareness of human impacts upon the planetary environment that have led to the emergence of quality products with post-consumer recycled material content.

Our business has always prided itself on accurately portraying the content of our materials and an admirable transparency and openness regarding them. Yet, there are realities that we have very little influence over. It is well known that there has been conflict between the chemical industry representatives and those developing the latest LEED v4 standards over this issue of transparency. Industry chooses to hide – whether we should be concerned about the health implications or whether the assertions are valid – behind the idea that their formulations include “proprietary” ingredients.

In attempting to honor requests that we are receiving to provide Health Product Declaration information, we have come up against that thick wall of non-disclosure from our color concentrate suppliers. Making jest at a serious issue we wonder if the “proprietary dust” listed in the components is considered safe by the chemical industry and therefore of no concern or does it hide “lead infused radioactive asbestos” dust ? Not that we believe the latter but how is one to know ?

That is precisely the quandary of those who choose the products and materials used in building construction which a significant number of human beings spend a significant amount of their lives enclosed within. We understand but as a very small, niche business we lack the influence to force disclosure by our suppliers who are reputable companies that supply most of the color pigments for most of the plastic objects made in the USA.

HDPE bottle bales

This is an even older, long standing issue we have had to grapple with since the founding of our business. That is the nature of post-consumer feedstocks in general. There can be no HPD for post-consumer recycled resin because these containers represent a variable waste stream with a diversity of unknowns. It is not possible to know what type of liquid or granular material was contained in the original polyethylene vessel. Testing every container before it is recycled would not be a practical solution.

The recycled polyethylene resin that we use has been subjected to cleaning in a hot water washing process. The cleaned resin is then pelletized by liquefying it to temperatures between 250° and 300° F., filtering it and then forming it into pellets. These processes do not necessarily completely nullify the potential for some residual chemicals to remain microscopically present. It is because of this potential type of contamination that Yemm & Hart uses for their Origins product post-consumer milk jugs to avoid potential complications of chemical content residue or plastic additives. Knowing that this recycled resin once contained the nation’s milk supply makes its use feel safer to us.

We see the current effort for building products to have HPDs as a beginning. It is going to take research and legislation to ever achieve complete transparency from industry. Those at the forefront of the HPD movement want a little bit healthier interior environment in a world that has all of us inhaling mercury from coal burning power plants, radon from deteriorating uranium deep below us and an incredible array of chemicals all around us including in the food we eat.

Yemm & Hart will continue to remain informed about the progress of this effort. It is our hope that eventually we will find it easier to comply with requests related to the HPD movement and thus provide to the A&D community an even more transparent disclosure regarding the composition of our materials than we are able to do today. From our beginning, we have done our best to present our material in the most accurate manner possible. Even so, at the moment the general trend has us feeling a bit squeezed out of the market by the best of intentions.

The Little Guy

~ Information Resources

1973 oil crisis – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis

USGBC History – http://www.usgbc.org/about/history

Sick building syndrome – http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/sick-building-syndrome/Pages/introduction.aspx

Health Product Declaration Collaborative – http://hpdcollaborative.org/

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

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