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 – 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

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

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What Happened to Good Intentions ?

2001-2014 EPA Chemical Assessments Graph

What happened to President Obama’s promise to divorce politics from science ? More specifically, what happened to those good intentions to assess dangerous chemicals more quickly at the EPA ? When Lisa Jackson came on board as the new EPA administrator in 2009 during the first Obama term, she was fully supportive of the president’s promise. She knew the EPA needed to assess 50 chemicals a year to do its job properly. Jackson quickly rolled out a plan to break through the logjam of the Bush years when the EPA was only averaging five assessments per year. Jackson’s plan seemed easily achievable and needed only a little tweaking regarding the inner workings of bureaucracy. It required no congressional approval and the Republican party never passed any legislation to block it.

It seemed like a great start for Jackson who is educated as a chemical engineer. It is interesting to note that she attended Tulane University on a scholarship from Shell Oil Company. She graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1983 and earned her Master of Science degree, also in chemical engineering, from Princeton University in 1986. Jackson had some valid environmental experience from working in a variety of positions beginning at the EPA involved in toxic waste clean-up issues and moving into the top position as Commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before being nominated to head the EPA for Obama. Even so, New Jersey environmental activists when asked were divided in their opinion of her work at the NJ Dept of Environmental Protection agency and the split seemed to be between those who work on energy and climate policy in the state’s capital (who were supportive of her) and those who work on toxic cleanups at the local level who were critical of her.

Environment is Foundational

In spite of all the good intentions, since 2012, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year it completed only one assessment. More worrisome is the indication that the agency has now embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays. I learn a lot about the chemical industry in reading Plastics News. I know that they have had impacts on LEED v4 as well. Though chemicals are important in our business and in everyday life, I can’t shake the feeling that the industry as a whole can’t be entirely trusted to consider the people’s health and welfare over profits when making decisions.

There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today. You might think that the government tests each chemical to assure that it’s safe. However, that is NOT true in the United States. Unlike the European Union, in the US, chemicals are assumed to pose no health risk unless the EPA proves otherwise. This task is left to a small program within the EPA called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS. Jackson wanted to drastically cut the time spent on each chemical assessment from an average of seven years to less than two years. Yet almost immediately the chemical industry found ways to thwart Jackson’s plan with the help of certain Republicans in Congress. Although the GOP didn’t control either chamber in Obama’s first two years, some Republican lawmakers still found ways to delay the application of science at the EPA in favor of insignificant details.

Formaldehyde Warning Label

Here is one example –

In the early days of our contract furniture business the collateral furniture pieces we made had a foundation of particle board that was then covered with plastic laminate or wood veneer. One good thing about particle board is that it is made with 100 percent recycled materials. The tiny wood chunks and sawdust that go into it are usually reclaimed waste from sawmills and lumber yards. That means that some manufacturers are now using wood that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

However, particleboard isn’t part of the green-building pantheon. The reason is that the resin glue that binds the wood fibers and provides structural strength contains formaldehyde which emits carcinogenic gases into the air from the finished boards. At surprisingly low levels these formaldehyde emissions produce a pungent odor and they can pose a health risk. For decades, formaldehyde (which turns up in many other building and consumer products including automobiles and even no-iron shirts) emissions have been known to cause eye, nose and respiratory irritations in sensitive people. The World Health Organization has classified formaldehyde as a carcinogen. EPA scientists began evaluating the chemical in 1998 and determined that it was linked to nasal cancers and leukemia. To be honest, all wood naturally emits minute amounts of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde Particleboard

Particleboard inevitably became part of discussions regarding how far beyond “minute” it is safe to go because the fabricated material is one of the primary sources of indoor formaldehyde emissions. In lab tests, formaldehyde emissions from particleboard average about 0.2 parts per million. Greenguard Environmental Institute was a nonprofit group that tested and certified formaldehyde emission levels in building-products and furnishings. According to Marilyn Black, an environmental chemist and the original founder of Greenguard, above 0.3 parts per million almost everyone will notice their eyes watering and nose and throat becoming irritated. In 2011, UL Environment acquired ownership of Greenguard and as such is no longer a non-profit.

Georgia-Pacific makes particleboard with formaldehyde. It is owned by Koch Industries’ whose billionaire owners Charles and David Koch financially influence politics. The American Chemistry Council, a trade association and lobby group for the chemical industry, said in a statement in defense of the formaldehyde industry – “The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments.” Who do you want to believe ? I certainly have a preference.

Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana blocked the EPA appointee who would oversee the IRIS program until the agency agreed to get a second opinion on its formaldehyde assessment. The EPA agreed to have the National Academy of Sciences review its formaldehyde draft. The academy is considered the preferred scientific adviser at the national level but the panel reviewing the formaldehyde assessment didn’t focus on whether the EPA was right about the science. Instead it criticized the formaldehyde draft for being confusing and made suggestions on how to make future IRIS reports clearer. This seemingly valid perspective actually made the chemical industry very happy.

What Happened to Good Intentions ?

What Happened to Good Intentions ?

So back to what happened . . . What put the brakes on the EPA’s intention to complete chemical assessments in a timely manner ? The short answer – the chemical industry’s lobbyist and former EPA official Charlie Grizzle. By leveraging the National Academy’s criticisms about the clarity of the formaldehyde assessment, Grizzle and others got language inserted into legislation that delayed all 47 chemical assessments that were in progress at the time. They did this by instructing the EPA to adopt the academy’s recommendations and explain to Congress how it was going to implement those regulations for ongoing and new assessments.

William Ruckelshaus, who ran the EPA for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, said getting the National Academy to review the EPA’s scientific findings is a common delay tactic used by industry that endangers the public health. He said that delaying the publication of adverse findings is an unconscionable act on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemicals and derives economic benefit from that activity. Ironically, last year the National Academy subsequently released its own assessment of formaldehyde. I’ll bet you guessed it already !! It agreed with the EPA’s findings that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Regrettably it has been 17 long years that the EPA has been trying to get its formaldehyde assessment completed and even now, it is still mired in delays.

Formaldehyde Danger

And the situation remains worrisome because in July 2012, Dr. Kenneth Olden took charge of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, which is who oversees IRIS. While a director at the National Institutes of Health, Olden raised eyebrows by collaborating with the American Chemistry Council to fund scientific research. It should not be surprisingly then that his appointment has won praise from the chemical industry and certain Republicans for his embrace of the procedural changes to assessment reports as suggested by the National Academy of Sciences.

Companies in the particleboard industry say that they HAVE voluntarily reduced formaldehyde emissions from their products by 80 percent in 20 years. I believe it but Yikes !! Certainly, we can all be thankful for that much. The particleboard industry could bring its formaldehyde emissions down simply by using a different glue – phenol formaldehyde resin. Emissions from particleboard made with that glue are so low that some green rating systems give points to home builders for using it. According to Healthy House Institute, Urea-formaldehyde (UF) glue off-gasses considerably more formaldehyde than Phenol-formaldehyde (PF) glue. Georgia-Pacific Chemicals does manufacture and offer a Phenol-formaldehyde glue under the tradename LEAF®. The product is considered by them to be a low-emission resin for use in particleboard and MDF. LEAF GB resins may be melamine-formaldehyde, melamine-urea-formaldehyde or phenol-formaldehyde based and GP believes they may meet some green building standards.

As often happens, what California demands serves all of the citizens of the United States because their influence in the marketplace is that strong. The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board has established low emission standards for the off-gassing of formaldehyde that should result in safer substrate products becoming more common in the marketplace nationwide. The first emission standards were implemented on January 1, 2009. The latest update on this issue was posted at their website on May 23, 2014 (see my information resources below for that link).

~ Information Resources

“Obama’s EPA breaks pledge to divorce politics from science on toxic chemicals” posted by David Heath on Jan 23, 2015 – http://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/01/23/16641/obamas-epa-breaks-pledge-divorce-politics-science-toxic-chemicals

Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System – http://www.epa.gov/iris/

Lisa P Jackson, EPA Administrator 2009-2013 posted at Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_P._Jackson

“A Solution to the Particleboard Problem?” by Katherine Salant posted May 31, 2008 at the Washington Post – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/30/AR2008053001485.html

Greenguard Certification from UL Environment – http://greenguard.org/en/index.aspx

“Formaldehyde-Based Glues” posted at Healthy House Institute – http://www.healthyhouseinstitute.com/hhip-780-Formaldehyde-Based-Glues

Adhesives/Binder Resins offered by Georgia-Pacific Chemicals – http://www.gp-chemicals.com/Adhesives_Binder_Resins_Product_Category

Composite Wood Products ATCM (airborne toxic control measure) – http://www.arb.ca.gov/toxics/compwood/compwood.htm

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

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