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
Picking up on a theme from last week’s essay and the behavior of Corporations who’s only focus is profits to funnel to stockholders (and having just last night watched the movie Barbarians at the Gates about the debacle of the Leveraged Buy Out of RJR Nabisco by Kolberg Kravitz Roberts & Co and having read a 15 yr post-mortem on the results of that unbelievable but true story by the co-author of the book by the same title – which is NOT a pretty picture), I wanted to focus this week on a few shining stars of business that I have personal experience with.
Recently, we received the kind attentions of a hired writer who created a word picture of our business for our profile page at the Green Home website. It was accurate and also a bit of fun to read how another person might describe us. We have been involved with Green Home located physically in San Francisco CA since the year 2000 around the time of its founding by Lawrence Comras. One may view him as the true entrepreneurial spirit – good at getting an enterprise up and running but not able to remain in management for the long run. Not everyone is cut out for it and that was also a theme from last night’s movie regarding the CEO at the time of the LBO of RJR.
Before our oldest son was born 15 years ago, we thought about dropping the minor consumer products our business was offering – key tags, picture frames, cutting boards and clipboards. After the birth of our oldest son, we thought as business owners of a small business that perhaps this little sideline of ours might make a good “starter” business for our son to learn within. We began funneling all revenues from these products as “royalties” to an account for our son. These products have never been what truly pay our bills or support our family.
So although it has been somewhat minor, working with Green Home has been a pleasure. Recently, there has been fresh energy pouring into their efforts to be a “useful” company and so in addition to “selling” products for revenue, they have a new interest in learning about the companies that supply those products and also offer visitors to their website a link to Info About Green Living as well as a Blog. Green Home says – “Our company is on a mission to green the world, one person (and one business) at a time.”
Another company I have a high opinion of is The Container Store. They have been purchasing our Origins 513 Tornado for the vanity countertops in the customer restrooms of their retail locations since 2005. At a link on The Container Store’s website they define “What We Stand For” describing themselves as an “organization with heart”. Among the categories there are Conscious Capitalism, Environmental Sustainability, as well as their commitments to employees, vendors, their communities and their stakeholders.
A company that I am fond of, even as their growth has made them seem much more “corporate”, is Whole Foods Market. The St Louis Galleria store employees are like family to me – though not all my favorites from their early days in St Louis (around the time that my oldest son was born) are still there – a few familiar faces remain and I like shopping there – especially for meat, seafood, bulk foods, gourmet cheeses (though concerns about cholesterol have curtailed our own enjoyment of these – what WFM offers is extraordinary for that food group) and produce.
I have a copy of John Mackey’s book “Conscious Capitalism”. It is described on the back cover as a “bold defense and reimagining of capitalism and a blueprint for a new system of doing business”. When asked “Can change occur in the larger world of business and leadership as it has for Mackey and Whole Foods ?” he answers – yes. He says that his most enthusiastic audiences are business people hungry to hear that their work has a higher purpose: to provide value for people and the planet.
Another company that I have a high regard for is mentioned on the back cover of Mackey’s book and in 3 locations in his text is Panera Bread. We first knew this company as St Louis Bread, who later merged with Panera, but sometimes one still sees locations bearing the original name. Their cafes are clean, spacious and comfortable. They offer salads, soups and bakery items that include sandwiches. When we have to go to St Louis, 2 hrs north of where we live, we often go to eat at Panera because we feel good about the quality of food they offer. The company has recently embraced the idea fully that “people are literally sick of eating food loaded with man-made ingredients. So, they’re chosing to eat better, even if it costs more, based on the promise that they’ll feel better and be happy.” I read a full page ad/letter in Time magazine from CEO Ron Shaich. They have published a list of artificial ingredients that will be removed from their menu offerings by 2016, saying “Our food will have no artificial colors, preservatives, sweeteners or flavors. None whatsoever.”
There are GOOD companies out there trying to make a difference and we should give these companies when we find them and discover that they are providing products that are useful to us, our business, voting with our dollars for the kind of commercial environment we prefer.
I have been grateful that for more than 25 years, Yemm & Hart has been deriving revenue to support our family by doing something I can feel good about everyday – making use of the materials that are turned in for recycling and using them to create “new” materials for use in the built environment on construction projects. Our ethics go beyond the business – for my partner, Stephen, and I have always been practical environmentalists that seek to live our lives in ways that leave the world a better place in return for our existence. We expect those values will be continued into the future by our sons, even when we are longer walking the planet.
~ Information Resources
100% Recycled Cutting Boards sold at Green Home – http://www.greenhome.com/100-recycled-plastic-cutting-board.html
100% Recycled Clip Boards sold at Green Home – http://www.greenhome.com/100-recycled-clip-board.html
Yemm & Hart profile at Green Home – http://www.greenhome.com/blog/greenhome-profiles-yemm-hart
“What We Stand For” blog at The Container Store – http://standfor.containerstore.com/
“Values Matter” at Whole Foods Market – http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/valuesmatter
Harvey Bishop interview of John Mackey for Science of Mind magazine May 2015 issue – http://www.scienceofmind.com/e-mail/archives/2015/newsletter_may-01.html
Ad of the Day: Panera Gets Into Lifestyle Branding With Manifesto About Healthy Living posted June 15, 2015 in Adweek by Andrew McMains – http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/ad-day-panera-gets-lifestyle-branding-manifesto-about-healthy-living-165330
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer