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
Sometimes the little things actually do matter. Take hotel soaps for example. One third of the world’s soap is used by people living in the United States. 2.6 million hotel size bars of soap are thrown away as hotel rooms are cleaned each day in the United States alone.
How often do you use all the soap a hotel provides for you ? I will admit that we bring home both opened and unopened bars of soap since our perception is that the hotel has allotted a certain amount of soap as covered by the bill we have paid. How about you ? Do you use those soaps and shampoos once you get home ? We actually do try to use them. If a natural disaster occurs and we are donating stuff to help the local people get by until they can get back on their feet, we might include a ziplock bag full of these if they have accumulated faster in our household than we have been able to use them.
I recently discovered the Clean the World Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) charitable organization that collects from more than 1,000 hotel partners in North America then recycles and distributes these hotel soaps and bottled amenities not only in the United States but also in 40 countries abroad. The environmental impact of this effort has diverted an estimated 550 tons of hotel waste from landfills in the United States and Canada.
Clean the World was started in Orlando, Florida in 2009 in the one-car garage of Shawn Seipler, a sales executive. Never believe that one person can’t make a huge difference in the world. Seipler wondered what happened to the tiny bars of soap leftover from his 150 nights spent in hotel rooms each year. When he found out that the soap was thrown away, while children died around the world each day because they had no access to soap, he decided to form Clean the World.
By 2011, the foundation had collected, recycled and distributed more than 8 million soap bars to children and families in need in the United States and more than 40 countries, including Haiti, Japan, Zimbabwe, Uganda, India, Honduras, Mexico and Albania. Medical research studies have shown that simple hand washing with soap could help prevent hygiene related deaths by more than 60 percent, yet there are communities around the world in which soap is such a valuable commodity that hygiene is considered a luxury, not a necessity. Each day, 9,000 children around the world die from diseases such as acute respiratory illness and diarrheal diseases that can be prevented by washing with bar soap. These are the top two killers of children under the age of 5. Clean the World Foundation has a mission to provide soap where needed to help improve hygiene and sanitation conditions, to lessen the impact of disease, and to promote better hygiene and living conditions worldwide.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, Derreck Kayongo was troubled by his time visiting refugee camps, where illness was rampant because people had no access to soap. He partnered with a veteran hospitality executive who shared his same concerns about throwing away soaps at hotels and started the Global Soap Project in his basement. According to Global Soap, hand washing with soap can reduce diarrheal disease and respiratory infections because teaching proper hand washing techniques and providing soap is more effective than vaccines, medications or clean water initiatives alone.
It is estimated that over six years time, the efforts of these two soap recycling organizations have contributed to a 30% reduction in childhood deaths from hygiene-related illnesses. The organizations, Clean the World and Global Soap, have now joined forces in 2015 to work together to make an even larger impact on preventing illness caused by lack of proper hygiene. Clean the World now focuses on recycling the soap and toiletries at their three facilities in Orlando, Las Vegas and Hong Kong. They are the only high-volume soap recycler in the world. Global Soap is now focused on soap distribution and promoting global hygiene. The group uses local aid and non-governmental organizations to help with distribution and education, as well as sending their own teams into rural communities around the world to hand-deliver hygiene products and to teach residents about the importance of keeping clean.
I bet you’re wondering – how is soap recycled ? I’m glad you asked !! In the beginning a Clean the World volunteer would “surface clean” the soaps. Now there are 3 industrial scale recycling facilities where the soap is ground up and sterilized to eliminate all pathogens and then pressed into new bars and wrapped. It is really a lot like the way that Yemm & Hart partners with facilities who clean the milk jugs and detergent bottles you recycle and then processes them into the standard resin feedstock form so that we can press this into new plastic panels for restroom partitions and countertops.
Want to recycle your own soap in your home for your family’s use ? “Instructables” offers step-by-step instructions along with color photos to guide you (see the link at ~ Information Resources below).
~ Information Resources
“What Happens Next When Two Soap Recycling Programs Join Forces?” posted at Earth911 on Aug 5, 2015 – http://www.earth911.com/business-policy/clean-the-competition-soap-recycling-programs-join-forces/
“First Annual Clean the World Gala” posted on prweb on May 18, 2011 – http://www.prweb.com/releases/2011/5/prweb8452571.htm
“How Recycled Bars Of Soap Could Help Prevent Illnesses In Developing Countries” by Brian Skoloff/Associated Press posted April 10, 2015 at the Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/10/clean-the-world_n_7042404.html
“Green Partitions – Successful Specifications for Polyethylene Partitions” posted at Yemm & Hart – http://www.yemmhart.com/products/partitions/partitions_success_spec.html
“Recycle your old Soap” by Gunk on Floor posted at Instructables – http://www.instructables.com/id/Reuse-Your-Old-Soap/
** PS – a word about Ecossentials Elements soap from Concept Amenities (image at the beginning of this blog). CA is serious about making a difference in the environmental problem of the 95% of the plastic used in hotel rooms ending up in landfills – where of course – they sit for hundreds of years. The company notes that the top 300 hotel groups in the world alone dispose of an estimated 5.5 billion amenity bottles and caps every year. Their plastic packaging is fully biodegradable in the landfill because it contains an FDA approved organic based additive that allows microbes to break it down. You can read more about “Mikey the Microbe” at Concept Amenities as well as additional information about the company, their values and their products at – http://www.conceptamenities.com/. Concept Amenities works with Australia’s hotel soap recycling organization – SoapAid (http://www.soapaid.org). CA has locations in Australia, the UK and Las Vegas NV in the US.
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer