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
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 PlasticsInfo.org 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854718/
“The Safety of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)” – http://plasticsinfo.org/Main-Menu/MicrowaveFood/Need-to-Know/Plastic-Bev-Bottles/The-Safety-of-Polyethylene-Terephthalate-PET.html
POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE – http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/704991/POLYETHYLENE_TEREPHTHALATE/
FAQ about PET – http://www.factsonpet.com/frequently-asked-questions/
Patient Centered Design – Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh – http://www.fastcompany.com/1351198/patient-centered-design-childrens-hospital-pittsburgh
Greenplay Children’s Furniture by Skyline Design, Chicago – http://www.skydesign.com/products/childrens-furniture
Kid’s Quest – Santa Fe Station Casino – http://www.kidsquest.com/hourly-child-care/santa-fe-station-hotel-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 ewg.org “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.
If one has not been involved with “applied” science directly, they may not realize the degree to which our places of higher learning, actually impact the commercial world as manufactured products. Recently, I was given the pleasure of reconnecting with a business acquaintance, Julee Herdt, that we had lost touch with for a decade. She is an Architect and Professor of Architecture at the University of Colorado in Boulder. A decade ago, she was the architecture faculty lead in back-to-back wins for the U of CO in the prestigious US Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon competition.
I was happy to learn that she is on the verge of setting up a factory, to commercialize her “concept” for a 100% waste cellulose building panel known as BioSIPs (Bio for “living” and SIPs for “structural insulated panels”). Using waste fibers combined with natural, salvage and repurposed materials, she has created a sustainable building material. Herdt worked with the USDA Forest Products Lab to apply their research and technology in order to develop her BioSIPs board, taking low-grade “waste” – like paper, agricultural and a variety of wood wastes – and engineering that into panels with a consistent and predictable strength.
In 2005, Herdt’s BioSIPS board provided the structural insulated wall, floor and roof panels to create an affordable and energy-efficient solar-powered house that earned CU it’s second Solar Decathlon win. By 2011, Herdt had received a State of CO grant that allowed her to complete an entire building (including interior structures and furniture), diverting 3-1/2 tons of waste fibers as BioSIPs board. By 2013, Herdt’s BioSIPS inventions were honored by the US Green Building Council as “Colorado’s Green Product” of the year.
Yemm & Hart has often been approached by individuals who have been inspired by our post-consumer recycled materials. We have attracted a wide range of attention from artists to serious interior designers and architects with our visually stimulating products. Time and again, we have experienced individuals with interesting ideas but not the least idea of how to take a concept and create a marketable product. That is where our long experience as innovative entrepreneurs has given us the understanding to do just that – take a concept, create and actually manufacture a product – plus know how to market that product and create sales. The concept behind Origins was a slab of particle board. In other words, replacing that traditional product with something made of waste materials. Or how about finding a second life for those little corks that you pop out of your wine bottle ?
Recently, an entity participating in our wine cork recycling effort, wanted us to guarantee that we could take their collected wine corks and deliver to them a product made ONLY from THEIR corks. We had to explain manufacturing realities to them. We wrote back – it would be the same as “providing a load of PET soda pop bottles to a major carpet manufacturer and asking them to track the resin from the bottles to the carpet. They just could not do it unless it was rail cars of resin going in and truckloads of carpet going out. It would still be difficult to determine when the target resin started and stopped”. Ideas are abundant but the know-how to turn ideas into products requires a broader understanding, experience and skill. And a degree of “luck” as well. Timing, economics, variations in market perceptions, demands and supply, are all factors that can derail even the best developed business plans based on true experience.
Collaborations between institutions of higher learning and the commercial world can be beneficial for everyone. Recently, the Florida Institute for Commercialization of Public Research (a non-profit) identified more than 100 commercial projects that can benefit from technology developed at Florida’s state universities and private research institutions. US Bioplastics is receiving some funding for Gatoresin (created from feedstock waste, paper production by-products and other plant based wastes). The new material is bio-renewable, water-degradable plastic designed for use in highly disposable applications. The technology for this process is licensed by the firm from the University of Florida. The company expects its new product to be “a viable alternative to a large segment of oil-based, non-degradable plastics” according to the Institute’s CEO, Jamie Grooms, in his announcement for this funding.
~ Information Resources
“Furniture of the Future” by Vicki Hildner, University Communications for the University of Colorado – http://www.ucdenver.edu/about/newsroom/spotlight/students/Pages/Julee-Herdt-and-students-create-future-with-sustainable-building-material.aspx
“BioSIPs Research Structure” by Nicholas McMunn, AIA – http://archinect.com/URBinProphet/project/biosips-research-structure
“BioSIPs Executive Summary” – http://www.innovationcenteroftherockies.com/CUBioSIPs.html
“Origins Introduction” by Yemm & Hart Ltd – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/origins/originsintroduction.html
“About Recycled Cork” by Yemm & Hart Ltd – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/winecorktile/wct_aboutrecycled.html
“US Bioplastics receives funding to bring Gatoresin to the market” by Frank Esposito posted July 24, 2014 in Plastics News – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140724/NEWS/140729956/us-bioplastics-receives-funding-to-bring-gatoresin-to-the-market
“About Gatoresin” – http://usbioplastics.com/about-gatoresin
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer