Good News for Plastics

It is often hard for environmentalists to love plastics. A realist however knows that plastics are here to stay. Lately, I’ve become aware of several pieces of “good news” for plastics thanks to the publication known as “Plastics News”.

Cyanobacteria Good Bad Algae

As with many aspects of life, there are good and bad qualities to things that exist in this world, including Cyanobacteria, also known as Algae. In an Aug 27, 2015 article titled “Researchers probe microbes for a future plastics building block” Michael Lauzon writes for Plastics News that “Researchers at the U S Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are tweaking cyanobacteria to produce ethylene through photosynthesis. . . . working with a specific strain . . . that makes ethylene when exposed to sunlight”, this sustainable process (if researchers can get its yields up) could mean that making plastics (ethylene) would also play a role in cutting atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide which is the greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. It just so happens that Ethylene is one of the chemicals this microbe makes when it converts carbon dioxide to biomass as it grows.

I find this exciting !! It may still be another 10 years before this research actually results in semi-commercial farms according to Jianping Yu who heads the research group at Golden CO. Previously, researchers explored a bio-based route to making ethylene from sugar cane or other plant matter. However this approach used lots of water in growing the feedstock plants and had the drawback of tying up land that could be used to grow food for a still growing global population. The new system works in both fresh water and more importantly in seawater, which is available in abundance on this planet. Happily oxygen is one of the byproducts of this cyanobacteria route. It is interesting to note that these ancient microbes are thought to have created most of earth’s oxygen billions of years ago when they were the dominant life form on the planet.

The new approach cuts the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere when compared to ethylene production sourced from oil and gas. Using fossil fuels generates between 1.5 and 3 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of ethylene. By contrast, the NREL approach removes 3.4 tons of carbon dioxide because the cyanobacteria capture CO2 from the air in order to perform its photosynthesis. Ethylene production is the highest volume petrochemical made on earth.

Mealworm Life Cycle

Mealworms are food for many living creatures including humans. Not that I’ve ever eaten them myself but I remember buying some to feed some creature we had responsibility for once upon a time. Mealworms are vegetarians feeding on fresh oats, wheat bran or grain, with sliced potato, carrots, or an apple as a source of moisture. I have seen them in novelty “food products” such as tequila-flavored candies which adds a definite creepiness factor. Mealworms are typically used as a pet food for captive reptiles, fish, and birds. They are also provided to wild birds in bird feeders, particularly during the nesting season. Mealworms are useful for their high protein content and are also used as fishing bait.

Now comes news that the plastic foam used for carryout food containers could become a new part of the mealworm’s diet and in the process solve a major garbage problem. It turns out that the larvae of the darkling beetle will actually feed on expanded polystyrene (EPS). The beauty of this is that microorganisms in their guts effectively biodegrade the EPS internally. The end result is that the larvae’s poop from this food source seems to be a safe product that may eventually be suitable as a soil product to grow more plant crops.

Researchers at Stanford University in the civil and environmental engineering department headed by professor Craig Criddle and senior researcher Wei-Min Wu in collaboration with colleagues in China have high hopes for its implications “to find a way to remediate current plastic pollution” according to Wei-Min Wu. Researchers at the Beihang University in China had previously observed waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths, break down polyethylene in the form of plastic bags because of microorganisms existing in their guts.

The findings of the latest research are also “significant because EPS ‘has been considered basically non-biodegradable and it causes pollution problems in soil, rivers, lakes and oceans’, Wu said.” “Microbes in the guts of the baby bugs broke down the plastic and converted some of it into carbon dioxide and some of it into biodegradable fragments, which were excreted like tiny rabbit droppings within 24 hours.”

The researchers at Stanford and in China plan to study whether the microorganisms in mealworms and other insects could biodegrade other plastics, such as polypropylene, microbeads and bioplastics and they will also begin looking for a marine equivalent of the mealworm. “This is early stage research,” Criddle said. “We don’t know where it will go.” Their research may develop powerful enzymes to degrade plastic or guide manufacturers to design polymers that don’t accumulate in the environment or food chains.

Plastic Bank

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the work of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based organization known as the Plastic Bank which is monetizing plastic waste to reduce litter, especially marine debris, while helping people living in poverty.

The organization does this through standard commercial channels but not with the standard commercial emphasis on their own bottom line. Individuals voluntarily pick up discarded plastic from beaches, canals or streets and then take it to a collection center for recycling. The Plastic Bank then pays the center above-market rates for the recyclables — some of which are being ground into flake and injection molded into containers at Plascon Plastics Corp. in Delta, British Columbia, for Lush brand cosmetics. Also based in Vancouver, Lush has a green policy to protect people, animals and the planet in the production of its makeup and toiletries.

What’s not to feel GOOD about business that is managed this way ?

In Haiti, an individual who turns in their collected items will then be able to get cooking fuel, internet access or cell phone minutes, all items with a real world value. So that in a poverty-stricken pocket of the world plastic is upcycled instead of finding its way into the ocean. Ripples of a cleaner and better world have a significant impact even though it is coming from such a modest undertaking.

The co-founders of the Plastic Bank – David Katz and Shaun Frankson – call their recycled feedstock “social plastic”. They are leveraging social media to create demand for their materials. They have a page on Facebook titled “Social Plastic” which now has more than 1 million followers and Twitter users publicly ask major corporations to buy it and to do their part to reduce poverty and plastic waste.

A visionary thinker, Katz is a fan of plastic and how it can go from a PET bottle to a T-shirt to a car component. He raves about its versatility and durability. He sees solutions in its ability to change form and be used over and over — if properly handled. This is what Yemm & Hart does as well – take cleaned and ground up milk jugs and detergent bottles and turn them into construction grade panels that can be used to make restroom partitions and countertops. Personally, I have thought of our thick recycled plastic panels like the gold stored in Fort Knox. By keeping it out of the landfill, it remains viable into the future for re-use. A single 1″ thk panel at 60″ x 120″ typically used to fabricate a restroom partition side wall uses up approx 2,200 containers !!

Origins 508 at Boulder Co

~ Information Resources

“Researchers probe microbes for a future plastics building block” by Michael Lauzon posted in Plastics News on Aug 27, 2015 –

Mealworms info at Wikipedia –

“Hungry mealworms may be the future of EPS recycling” by Catherine Kavanaugh posted in Plastics News on Oct 1, 2015 – –

“Plastic Bank aims to reduce marine debris, help people” by Catherine Kavanaugh posted in Plastics News on Oct 6, 2015 –

“Social Plastic” on Facebook –

Yemm & Hart Origins Slideshow illustrates applications for 100% post-consumer recycled HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) plastic –

The United States Bullion Depository Fort Knox, Kentucky –


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


Safe Enough for Child’s Play

Boy with PET Water Bottle

Boy with PET Water Bottle

After my blog of March 30, 2015 “Materials With Some Concerns“, my partner suggested that I do a similar blog about our best known material, Origins, which uses High Density Polyethylene predominantly (with some Low Density Polyethylene occurring naturally in the “market” colors Milk Jug Natural and Confetti). So I goggled around and couldn’t find any serious concerns about Polyethylene except when it is PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) which we don’t allow in our resin feedstocks. Ummmm . . . what about my children’s water bottle ? Should I worry ?

While the Care2 article “Which Plastics Are Safe ?” noted that PET is “not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones”, I found conflicting information at the National Institutes of Health – Environmental Health Perspectives section. The report author Leonard Sax says – “Recent reports suggest that endocrine disruptors may leach into the contents of bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is the main ingredient in most clear plastic containers used for beverages and condiments worldwide and has previously been generally assumed not to be a source of endocrine disruptors.”

He goes on to say that – “The contents of the PET bottle, and the temperature at which it is stored, both appear to influence the rate and magnitude of leaching. Endocrine disruptors other than phthalates, specifically antimony, may also contribute to the endocrine-disrupting effect of water from PET containers.” He concluded that – “More research is needed in order to clarify the mechanisms whereby beverages and condiments in PET containers may be contaminated by endocrine-disrupting chemicals.”

And then, yet again, the website makes a strong case that PET is safe saying –
“As a result of advances in analytical chemistry, even the most miniscule level of migration from the plastic to foods can now be measured. Tests to determine the levels of compounds that have the potential to transfer from the plastic into food are conducted using conditions that simulate the actual use of the material. These tests have found that the migration of any components of PET plastics under laboratory conditions is well below applicable safety levels. Therefore, FDA has determined that PET is acceptable to use in the applications for which it has been tested.”

At Facts on PET – the Antimony question (“Don’t PET bottles leech antimony?”) that Leonard Sax expresses concerns about is answered this way – “Antimony trioxide is a catalyst that is sometimes used in PET production. Numerous tests have found that the level of antimony in bottled beverages falls well below even the strictest regulatory guidelines designed to protect public health. (See the International Life Sciences Institute white paper on PET) In addition, some resin producers are proactively shifting toward other catalysts that would reduce or eliminate the need for antimony in the production of PET”. The Environmental Working Group website judges PET to have a low overall hazard rating. Regarding Organ System Toxicity (non-reproductive) they note it is classified as “expected to be toxic or harmful” and to have a “medium health priority”.

It can be difficult for an average consumer to decide – “well below applicable safety levels” does not indicate the total absence of chemical leaching. I would tend to err on the side of the NIH researcher . . . and if Antimony did NOT pose “some concerns” then why would the industry be “proactively shifting toward other catalysts” to reduce or eliminate the need for it ? Hmmmmm, yeah – one can be grateful for that !!

That’s about all I can tell you currently about PET. Now on to “our” polyethylenes . . . the ones we recycle to make Origins. These are the #2 High Density Polyethylene and some #4 Low Density Polyethylene in the “market” resin colors.

It would be pretty difficult to swallow our Origins material in the sheet form that we make it into and sell it as. If small enough parts were created that could be swallowed without choking or causing an obstruction the polyethylene would pass inertly through the digestive system. Actually, I wrote in my Feb 9, 2015 blog “Better Living Through Chemistry ?” about the fact that a form of polyethylene (Polyethylene Glycol 3350) is the primary “active” ingredient in the laxative Miralax that our pediatrician recommended for our son.

RRP at Concord Elementary

Origins has been used in a variety of child-related applications because of its bright colors and interesting patterns. Our material has been used for eye-catching exhibit pieces at several children’s museums including the Palo Alto Junior Museum in California and the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum in Milwaukee WI.

Small Scale Construction System by Mark Frank for the Chicago Children's Museum

Small Scale Construction System by Mark Frank
for the Chicago Children’s Museum

The Chicago Children’s Museum even made interactive construction pieces out of various colors and custom specified the shapes they wanted for children to play directly with.

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh by Astorino

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh by Astorino

It is no surprise given the highly colorful (inside and out) design unveiled in 2009 by Astorino for The Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh that Yemm & Hart’s Origins material as fabricated into restroom partitions was used extensively throughout. Wherever children play Origin’s bright colors stimulate their imaginations which is why our 523 Purple Garden was used for restroom partitions at Kid’s Quest for the Santa Fe Station Casino in Las Vegas NV.

Kid's Quest 523 Purple Garden

Nor is it surprising that Skyline Design offers two Origins patterns – Warm Orange or Cool Blue – as surfacing options to its customers for their line of children’s furniture known as Greenplay.

Greenplay Children's Furniture in Warm Orange at  Advocate Lutheran General Hospital by Cannon Design

Greenplay Children’s Furniture in Warm Orange
at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital by Cannon Design

During our years of doing Earth Day celebrations in St Louis, children would often approach me to ask if our Confetti color was melted crayons. We gave away hundreds of little samples and in subsequent years children would often come back to our exhibit just to show me they still had their piece of our recycled plastic.

Darin Wacs Toys

It is difficult for us to conduct the kind of testing that most architects and interior designers rely on to feel safe about using a product. The changing nature of the post-consumer waste stream makes it impossible for us to have a material as consistently and exactly the same from one batch to the next that original manufacturers of plastic resins enjoy. We use the best processors that reliably sort and wash the post-consumer plastics to yield a clean and dependable resin that allows us to offer our customers a 100% post-consumer recycled content material we can all feel good about. We know that our business’ longevity from being in the recycled materials industry for over 25 years as well as the obvious safety of milk jug plastic (High Density Polyethylene) offer a reassuring confidence for our customers. After all, a material that is deemed safe enough to touch our children’s milk is pretty easy to trust.

~ Information Resources

“Polyethylene Terephthalate May Yield Endocrine Disruptors” by Leonard Sax posted Nov 25, 2009 –

“The Safety of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)” –


FAQ about PET –

Patient Centered Design – Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh –

Greenplay Children’s Furniture by Skyline Design, Chicago –

Kid’s Quest – Santa Fe Station Casino –


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


A special NOTE for those who care – the Environmental Working Group is requesting signatures for a petition that opposes the Udall-Vitter bill which they feel is a deceptive effort under the guise of “reform” by the chemical industry that will prioritize industry profitability at the expense of consumer health. They indicate that the competing bill by Senators Boxer and Markey is preferable. Go to the “POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE” link above to subscribe and a pop up on the page will yield you an opportunity to sign their petition). I’ve filled out their form . . . and yeah, I signed the petition.

Better Living Through Chemistry ?

Hazardous Waste Storage Area

Worried mother and concerned environmentalist meets modern technology. I called my pediatrician about constipation issues with one of my children. We were concerned about the long-term impact of unusual bowel-related experiences in our family. Am I being delicate enough for the average reader ? We had this inexplicable problem. One of our family’s members tended to clog the only toilet in our home and sometimes at motel rooms as well (at least one can usually find an alternative location in a moment of crisis at a motel !!). This usually happened late at night and so not convenient at all. Even though this sweet child in good humor once likened the situation of our toilet to a hazardous waste site with appropriate signage, he was likely traumatized at least a bit in knowing this was not a happy circumstance for the entire family. Eventually, though the child was not complaining, the family had enough experiences to not want to experience them any more. What to do ?

Mary Poppins Spoonful of Sugar

Mary Poppins Spoonful of Sugar

Being a basically natural kind of person, I tried prune juice but having to saturate it with table sugar along with a chaser of sugar water on the side just didn’t seem like a healthy long-term solution to me and though it seemed to help the circumstances somewhat, it was still a battle that none of us enjoyed. So that strategy was abandoned once the bottle of juice was empty months ago. But the problem persisted. Then, I discovered Wellments Baby Move which is concentrated prune juice with prebiotics. My finicky eater would not need to swallow as much volume and I wouldn’t have to entice him with a spoonful of table sugar anymore. The only complication was the dosing was for infants, babies 6 mos to 1 yr and 1 year and older. My son is a decade older than 1 yr but I tried that dose anyway. And still we had no real improvement in our circumstances. Finally we all just simply needed the relief of a real solution.

So, I called my pediatrician who didn’t seem impressed by my natural efforts and I had to admit they weren’t solving our problem entirely. I should mention that my son does eat a high fiber (Mini-Wheat Little Bites) breakfast with Whole Milk and whole grain pasta with Flax Oil at dinner with another cup of Whole Milk before bedtime. So even though he doesn’t do vegetables (unless you count Organic Corn Tortilla Chips as a vegetable) and infrequently eats fruits (though sometimes an Apple or Strawberries), his diet didn’t seem to me to be the source of our problem. The pediatrician said to pick up some over the counter MiraLAX and enforce regular visits to the restroom after every meal so that we could “reset” his biological cues (which only meant twice a day for my child because the rest of his eating is more like snacking). Her advice about establishing a new habit did make sense to me.

MiraLAX label

Our business deals by volume primarily in recycled polyethylene plastic. Imagine my worried mother shock to read the “active” ingredient on the MiraLAX bottle – Polyethylene Glycol 3350. We’re going to feed him plastic ? Not a warm and fuzzy feeling. Though we have researched polyethylene for toxicity when customers wanted to use it as building blocks or pieces in a children’s museum and in these solid forms the material is inert and non-toxic.

When I mixed up the first dose of MiraLAX, I was surprised that plastic could simply dissolve in water. (And a word of warning from my experience to other parents, if your child gets diarrhea when your doctor prescribes a full dose as defined by the bottle cap, give the child a 24 hour break and cut the dose in half because it is a possible sign of an overdose). Having previously written about the problem of plastic microbeads in the planet’s water supply for this blog, a thought arose that I should learn more about polyethylene glycol to determine if this material is a form of microbead. Polyethylene glycol is an osmotic laxative which works by retaining water in the stool, resulting in softer stools and more frequent bowel movements. And polyethylene glycol does not affect glucose and electrolytes in the body.

There are a lot of uses for polyethylene glycol – Carbowax in industrial use, as a surfactant, as a dispersing agent and as a laxative including the prep needed to have a colonoscopy. When attached to various protein medications, polyethylene glycol allows a slowed clearance of the carried protein from the blood. This makes for a longer-acting medicinal effect and reduces toxicity, and allows longer dosing intervals. Examples include PEG-interferon alpha, which is used to treat hepatitis C. It shows promise in spinal injuries, treating tumors, some cancers and nerve repair. One very interesting use was in preserving objects that have been salvaged from underwater by replacing water in wooden objects and making the wood more dimensionally stable. It also prevents warping or shrinking of wood when it dries, including green wood.

The shipwreck Novadoc W Michigan Underwater  Preserve

The shipwreck Novadoc
W Michigan Underwater Preserve

I learned a LOT about the many valuable uses of polyethylene glycol but it took an article about toothpaste at “Dental Buzz – A Jolt of Current: Trends, Innovations, and quirks of dentistry” to get an “answer”. The author, Trish Walraven, was concerned about polyethylene microbeads in Crest Toothpaste and says “We’re not talking about polyethylene glycol, which is soluble in water. This stuff won’t dissolve in water, or even acetone or alcohol for that matter. How do I know it won’t dissolve? Because I put on my little scientist hat and tested it.” Okay, so at least it isn’t part of that environmental problem !! And the MiraLAX is working for us, we have blessedly free flowing plumbing without an incident for weeks now. Yay !!

Hydrogel Spheres

Hydrogel Spheres

I remember these little plastic spheres that my boys have had fun playing with affectionately calling them “iggys”. These tiny, 3mm solid spheres quickly become approximately 20mm balls as they swell up in water. They shrink back to their original size when dried out. You can’t even see them in a container of water. While these water beads absorb a lot of water, they yet maintain their spherical shape when they are fully “grown”. They teach a lesson about the power of a class of polymers called Hydrogels. OK, so these don’t dissolve in water (due to a physical or chemical crosslinkage of the hydrophilic polymer chains) which makes them are an entirely different kind of plastic. Common ingredients in Hydrogels include polyvinyl alcohol, sodium polyacrylate, acrylate polymers and copolymers and thankfully “natural” hydrogel materials are being investigated for use in tissue engineering.

It is best not to throw the baby of possible benefits out with the bathwater of scary chemistry that many environmentalists including my self worry about. There can be better living in part through good chemistry. Actually, as a moderate and thoughtful person in addition to being a worrying mom and a concerned environmentalist – I believe that the careful and wise application of science is very important to modern life.

~ Information Resources

“Polyethylene Glycol – PEG” at Wikipedia –

“Polyethylene Glycol 3350 (Miralax, GoLytely) at –

“Crest toothpaste embeds plastic in our gums” by Trish Walraven posted in Dental Buzz – A Jolt of Current: Trends, Innovations, and quirks of dentistry on March 4, 2014 –

“Jelly Marbles – Clear Spheres” available from Steve Spangler Science –

“Hydrogels” posted under “Gel” at the Wikipedia –


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


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


[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

[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 –

“What are some alternatives to traditional plastics ?” posted at hosted by Discovery –

“Life without Plastic” – A one-stop shop for safe, high quality, ethically-sourced, Earth-friendly alternatives to plastic products for everyday life –

There are many reasonable articles at “” – this one caught our attention – “Plastic Island – Nasty, Gargantuan & Growing” posted back in August 2008 –


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


BPA & Plastic Safety Complexities

BPA Free Seal

It is always inconvenient when the way we’ve always done things becomes problematic. Take BPA – I recently heard a NPR program that indicated that careful research has not proven a significant concern. The programming was based on news that the US Food and Drug Administration published a paper finding that BPA was safe in low doses. That program indicated that in testing the substance on amphibians, the amount required to show any estrogenic effect was so high, that it is unlikely that any human being would ever receive such a dose.

BPA is used in a wide assortment of products, including paper receipts, plastic containers, and canned goods. Scientists are concerned that the chemical mimics the effect of female hormones and causes medical problems, such as cancer, learning disabilities, and immune system disorders. BPA exploded into the headlines in 2008, when stories about “toxic baby bottles” and “poison” packaging became ubiquitous. Good Morning America issued a “consumer alert.” The New York Times urged Congress to ban BPA in baby products. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned in the Huffington Post that “millions of infants are exposed to dangerous chemicals hiding in plain view.” Concerned parents purged their pantries of plastic containers, and retailers such as Walmart and Babies R Us started pulling bottles and sippy cups from shelves. Bills banning BPA in infant care items began to crop up in states around the country.

BPA-Free Packaging

BPA-Free Packaging

However, since the first alarms about BPA were raised, new forms of packaging have evolved to reassure human beings that their food is safe to eat. Personally, I would rather err on the side of over-reaction, if alternatives exist – than take a chance of some chemical that has raised concerns. And yet, that is not the end of this story and it is difficult to feel reassured.

Mother Jones has published information that BPA-Free Plastics are not necessarily risk free either. The problem as identified by Michael Green, who runs the Oakland, California-based Center for Environmental Health, relates to research suggesting some of these new generation, BPA-free plastics, contain synthetic estrogens, too.

An editorial in Plastics News for March 10, 2014 by Don Loepp notes that “many types of common plastics — not just polycarbonate and epoxy, which use bisphenol A as a feedstock — test positive for estrogenic activity (based upon the research of George Bittner) and poses important questions – “Are the levels of EA high enough to be concerned about ? Are plastics safe ? Are plastics companies that market certain materials as BPA-free selling products that are actually safer ?”

There are plenty of concerns to go around. In the FDA study, it is said the lab was entirely contaminated with the BPA chemical; and therefore, not controlled enough to be reliable. George Bittner is said to have a conflict of interest, in that he founded an Austin TX based company called Plastipure Inc, which markets plastics that it claims are “significantly safer materials, free of all estrogenic activity”. Eastman Chemical won a federal lawsuit last year against Plastipure when a jury found that Plastipure had made misleading statements about Eastman’s BPA-free Tritan product.

The controversy has set off a bitter fight with the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry. The American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for plastics makers and has sought to refute the science linking BPA to health problems, has teamed up with Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical—the maker of Tritan, a widely used plastic marketed as being free of estrogenic activity—in a campaign to discredit Bittner and his research. The company has gone so far as to tell corporate customers that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected Bittner’s testing methods. (It hasn’t.) Eastman also sued CertiChem and its sister company, PlastiPure, to prevent them from publicizing their findings that Tritan is estrogenic, convincing a jury that its product displayed no estrogenic activity. And it launched a PR blitz touting Tritan’s safety, targeting the group most vulnerable to synthetic estrogens: families with young children.

BPA Safe Resin Codes

BPA Safe Resin Codes

“It can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe,” the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, said in one web video, before an image of a pregnant woman flickered across the screen. True as far as that goes but that doesn’t necessarily reassure consumers. The recycle code can help reduce risks – “The number 7 doesn’t necessarily mean the product contains BPA,” according to Rebecca Roberts, PhD, a BPA researcher and assistant professor of biology at Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA. “It means it might.” Seven signifies a group of miscellaneous plastics including polycarbonate plastic (BPA is used to harden this type of plastic). The number 3, which stands for Poly-vinyl Chloride (PVC), may also contain BPA, whereas the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are very unlikely to contain BPA. Our Origins plastics are primarily #2 HDPE, some # 4 LDPE and a small amount of #5 Poly-propylene. But since the numbers 7 and 3 don’t always mean the product contains BPA, how can you know what to toss and what to keep? “Unfortunately, there’s no real way to tell,” says Roberts.

Cork & Synthetics Mixed

Cork & Synthetics Mixed

As long as we live and breathe and our hearts beat, Life will continue to present complex safety concerns. Living is dangerous and no more so, than in our modern times with the prevalence of volumes of chemicals with little known side effects and a lot of suspicions. I believe that controversies can be good for materials and the public health. Cork experienced a similar phase, when age-old practices were shown to contribute to a concern known as cork taint. Into the fray, came metal screw caps and synthetic cork forms as replacements. Natural cork producers responded by improving their practices to take the production of cork to food or pharmaceutical grade safety. Even though “cork taint” was addressed, the industry must now make the case (which can be ably made) that natural cork has aspects that make paying more worthwhile.

Effects of O2 on Wine assorted closures

Effects of O2 on Wine
assorted closures

Dr Paulo Lopes explained his research in conjunction with the University of Bordeaux. It suggests that bottles sealed with cork do transmit oxygen to wine, but there is no ingress of external oxygen: 90% of cork’s structure is air, so cork itself is responsible for transmission to the wine. Screwcaps, on the other hand, are basically impermeable and run a risk of ‘reduction’ (sulphide problems), whilst synthetic closures allow ingress of atmospheric oxygen, failing to maintain their seal over time. Dr Lopes’s hypothesis is that cork is the best ‘balanced’ of the closure materials, and given careful quality control in manufacture, does not allow atmospheric ingress or high variability.

As environmentalists and parents, we are willing to pay more for higher quality foods and products. As business people, we support the usage and recycling of plastics and wine cork stoppers. Knowing what’s best is never easy in a modern world full of conflicting and abundant information. We can each, only do our best.

~ Information Resources

“Research Debates BPA’s Influence in the Womb” by Dale McGeehon posted Feb 13, 2013 –

“The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics – And the Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury it” by Mariah Blake published in Mother Jones March/April 2014 Issue –

“Plastics, safety and the media” by Don Loepp posted March 10, 2014 in Plastics News –

“11 Ways to Lower Your BPA Exposure” by Katie Kerns posted at Everyday Health –

“Wine Cork Tile Introduction” by Stephen & Deborah Yemm published 2014 at Yemm & Hart website –

“Cork fights back” by Tom Cannavan posted July 2008 on Wine-Pages –

“Origins Introduction” by Stephen & Deborah Yemm published 2014 at Yemm & Hart website –


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


The Good, Bad & Ugly Perceptions About Plastics

3Rs Chasing Arrows
Most people are NOT as conflicted about glass, aluminum and paper, in quite the ways they are generally very conflicted, about the pervasive presence of plastics in modern life. We depend upon plastics to support our family, and we LOVE LEED, and we are not the norm, at least for the plastics industry. Actually, we are a bit out of the box, while being every bit as professionally oriented as any good business should be. We fall through a lot of cracks and for good reason.

Plastics gets bashed a lot. I even bash it a bit here. For example, the McDs coffee cup blog. Or the Green Globes fiasco blog. We aren’t aligned with “big” plastics, etc; but we are grateful that plastics help support our family. We are supported because we extend the life of natural resources that have already been extracted by recycling them into quality new materials for the building construction industry. We were always environmentalists but our entry into the recycling business sphere was timely, and for that we are grateful; because in our earliest boot-strap days, we got a lot of free publicity simply because we were doing a positive thing.

I do agree with one commenter on a blog by Paula Melton, managing editor at BuildingGreen Inc about the current LEED/Green Globes controversies on, when he states – “Supporters of green building, no matter their rating system of choice, should work together. After all, the next step by our erstwhile politicians will be to ban all green building rating systems!” We didn’t create LEED but we definitely have made it through one of the toughest economic cycles since the Great Depression, thanks to meeting specs and providing points to users of our material, in conjunction with their LEED certification attempts.

Actually, I am a middle-way kind of person. I know that most people are not truly evil and any business or corporation requires human inputs. And I think most people do the best that they can most of the time and sometimes they do really bad things in their own self-interest or because of some extreme stress or need. We all have to apply a lot of discernment and consider possible agendas with information that inundates us daily in our modern lives now.

Recycle Plastic Bags
Without a doubt plastic bags, such as one gets when shopping, and plastic bottles such as water and soft drinks are packaged in, represent challenges for our modern society. It is precisely because we recognize that, that we are grateful to be one “solution” to a huge issue. Not the whole solution and not the only solution by any means. One concern about plastics is that they come from petroleum production and there are not infinite sources of that resource. It took a very long time to create what oil we have and we are using it at a much faster rate than it could ever be realistically replenished. It doesn’t take a genius to realize there is some point when the resource may be less available. One bright spot is the development of plant based, biodegradable plastics. Yay !!

Recently, Plastics News (Nov 25, 2013 issue) highlighted the Global Plastics Summit. The Director of Recycling and Diversion at the Society of the Plastics Industry, Kim Holmes, was a balanced presenter at that event which took place in Chicago Nov 4-6, 2013. Only 3 slides into her presentation, she was acknowledging the “ugly” side of plastics. Pictures of plastic littering a beach, plastic bags caught in trees, plastics in a trash can, greeted attendees. I get it, just recently on Thanksgiving, someone’s bright yellow plastic shopping bag was decorating our dirt road (no, it was NOT our plastic bag carelessly allowed to blow away !!!)

Without a doubt, plastics suffers from a public perception problem when it comes to sustainability and happy acceptance. There is simply a lot of media driven attention on all the bad images, similar to what I just shared as well. Plastics have become a symbol representing the whole “throwaway society” mentality that many of us recognize is not sustainable. Wall-E anyone ? UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre has considered the effects of such portrayals. “In ‘WALL-E’, you have an opportunity to enjoy a landscape that you would in reality never enjoy. It’s the hygienic experience of terror and dirt. It’s like the fun of playing with dirt without the danger.” I understood the seriousness behind the fun of Wall-E. Prof Zubiaurre contrasts the Hollywood version with a reality version and challenges her students to dive deeper.

Contrasting Images

Contrasting Images

It is also true, from our own limited experience as recyclers, that if plastics are properly managed at the end of their original life cycle, they offer to society benefits similar to what they offer our own business. There are a whole bunch of sustainable benefits, longevity being one of them. Bluebird houses that we made over 20 years ago of recycled plastic are still usable, whereas wooden bluebird houses that we put up only a decade or less ago are totally deteriorated.

Kim Holmes, in her recent presentation pointed out that – “Scrap plastics, when they are reprocessed, become an important input for the manufacturing sector”, and even if they can’t be mechanically recycled, they may still represent an opportunity for “energy” recovery. All of this without extracting a single new barrel of oil.

I have found, as Kim Holmes also notes – People “feel kind of good about their ability to recycle” (glass, aluminum and paper). “It’s a good, tangible thing that people can do for the environment.” There is a real business case to use recycled resins in manufacturing processes – they generally behave almost identically, compared to virgin resins. There can be color issues, we can’t overcome them in “natural”, un-colored forms, but we also do use plastic colorants and achieve equal colored results in using 100% post-consumer resin feedstocks, to what we would accomplish with virgin plastic resin.

Origins Yavapai College AZ

Origins Yavapai College AZ

The average person can help expand the use of recycled plastic resins by always asking for and looking to find recycled alternatives to the usual plastic products. For our business use, we lock up approx. 2,100+ plastic bottles in a single 5′ x 10′ panel that might be the wall in the next public restroom stall you personally use. That is a very good thing !!!


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


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.


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