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”.
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.
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.
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 !!
~ Information Resources
“Researchers probe microbes for a future plastics building block” by Michael Lauzon posted in Plastics News on Aug 27, 2015 – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20150827/NEWS/150829910/researchers-probe-microbes-for-a-future-plastics-building-block
Mealworms info at Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mealworm
“Hungry mealworms may be the future of EPS recycling” by Catherine Kavanaugh posted in Plastics News on Oct 1, 2015 – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20151001/NEWS/151009984/hungry-mealworms-may-be-the-future-of-eps-recycling
PlasticBank.org – http://plasticbank.org/
“Plastic Bank aims to reduce marine debris, help people” by Catherine Kavanaugh posted in Plastics News on Oct 6, 2015 – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20151006/NEWS/151009927/plastic-bank-aims-to-reduce-marine-debris-help-people
“Social Plastic” on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/PlasticBank
Yemm & Hart Origins Slideshow illustrates applications for 100% post-consumer recycled HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) plastic – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/origins/slideshow_origins/slideshow.html
The United States Bullion Depository Fort Knox, Kentucky – http://www.usmint.gov/about_the_mint/fun_facts/?action=fun_facts13
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
The emergence of bioplastics has had my own attention for some time. Because a predominant activity of our business is the recycling of petroleum based plastics and rubbers, I have wondered whether bioplastics might eventually eliminate the need that drives our business activities.
I was appreciative of the latest effort of the World Wildlife Federation in bringing together 8 giants of industry – Ford, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Danone, Heinz, Unilever and Nestle – into an alliance known now as the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance. I was already aware of the WWFs previous effort to protect the Cork Montado’s in Portugal. It was easier to see the “wildlife interests” in that effort as the Montado’s are home to several endangered species (including a human indigenous and sustainable lifestyle).
The Earth911 website has an informative article – Recycling Mystery: Bioplastic – regarding plant based Biopolymers. The author, Amanda Wills writing in June of 2010, notes – “Bio-based, or plant-derivative plastics, in theory seem like the best idea since sliced bread. Bioplastics are used to create (and replace) products typically made from natural gas or petroleum. They are biopolymers, derived from renewable biomass sources such as corn starch or vegetable oil. Polyactic acid (PLA) is one form of bioplastic, produced from glucose. But while bioplastics seem like a great idea, in theory, the most important thing to understand is what to do with them once you’ve finished your to-go soda.”
In fact, Coca-Cola notes that their PlantBottle program produced 18 billion PET bottles in 2009, partially made from – guess what ? – plants. In case you’ve never noticed – many plastic bottles include a number code to facilitate recycling. These numbers (1 through 6) appear often inside the well-known chasing arrows triangular symbol. There is a movement in the plastics industry to drop that system but for now, we’ll leave that aside. Also in these chasing arrows symbol one often finds the number 7 – which is also sometimes identified as “other” and generally, avid recyclers know to put that into their landfill trash. Plastic ID # 7 includes those resins that do not fit into those other categories (1 through 6) and that includes most bioplastics.
Studies on the subject of attempting to recycle PLA with mainstream PET have provided conflicting outcomes. Back in 2010, NAPCOR (The National Association for PET Container Resources), voiced its concern for potential contamination of the PET recycling stream associated with PLA bottles and the trade association for PET plastics also voiced its concerns that an increased cost of separation, increasing contamination and yield losses would all impact recycled PET (RPET) quality and the viability of its processing.
“Biodegradable” plastics cannot actually be composted in your backyard compost pile. Heat is always a factor in plastics manufacturing and because biodegradable plastics require a very high heat to degrade; these therefore need a commercial composting facility to accomplish that. The senior material scientist for Natureworks LLC, Richard C. Bopp, worries – “When the consumer hears ‘biodegradable,’ often times they think it’s a material that you can throw out the window of your car and after one good rain, it will be back to nature, and it will fertilize the roadside”. I get it – “Saying ‘biodegradable’ is not specific enough to be useful, and it leads to all kinds of misunderstandings”.
The Earth911 articled notes – “If you use bio-based materials that can be recycled in today’s current stream, such as Coke’s new Plant Bottle or Dow’s sugar cane-based resins, then the answer is simple: Toss it in the recycling bin. But if you do buy compostable plastics, be sure to seek out an industrial composting facility near you. The most important thing to understand is your own recycling program. Call your recycler and simply ask if these types of plastics are accepted in your program. If not, use Earth911 to find local recycling for plastic #7.”
It is one of those complex ideas that this blog enjoys exploring, even if there are no easy answers to it. The WWF is concerned about issues of food security, land use and resource competition. The World Wildlife Federation seeks to protect those ecosystems that are valuable and very unique in biodiversity. They are also aware that these are precisely the ecosystems where major commodities are sourced – petroleum, agricultural and forestry products significantly. Erin Simon, who manages business and industrial packaging and material science issues at the WWF, wants to put some sound science into the decision-making process and influence the key research efforts among those brand names that are asking questions about biopolymers as potential new solutions for the future direction of their business’ products.
The trend emerging is for more transparency in the environmental and social performance not only of bioplastic materials but as built into the new Leed v4 standards that are slated to take effect in June 2015. LEED v4 seeks to challenge the marketplace to go further, make better, cleaner, healthier buildings for people to live and work in. One final positive thought about biopolymers is their potential to address CO2 in our atmosphere – there are a lot of smart phones and computing devices in everyday modern life.
Information Resources –
Plastics News – “Alliance eyes bioplastics sustainability” by Jim Johnson posted Dec 5, 2013
Earth911 – “Recycling Mystery: Bioplastic” by Amanda Wills
posted June 28, 2010
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer