Sometimes it is embarrassing to be associated with an industry such as the Plastics industry. Even though what we do is environmentally friendly (keeping already existing plastics out of the landfill) and the plastics that we are dealing with HDPE, LDPE and PP “seem” relatively benign. However, it does not appear that we can trust any assurances from the chemical industry.
The Huffington Post has a damning article titled “Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia” by Mariah Blake (see Information Resources at the end of this blog for a link). It is a saga yet to reach it’s conclusion. It is the story of the Washington Works, a plant in the DuPont family of companies and the Dry Run Creek landfill. It is the story of intentional deception on the part of DuPont. It is the story of how our modern day conveniences and ease in living are often obtained through the horrendous suffering of everyday people while the corporation – inherently different from a small business where someone actually cares and there is a “buck stops here” sense of responsibility – grows enormously wealthy and seeks to shed any liability for its actions in doing so.
DuPont assured the family on who’s farm it wanted to obtain a landfill that it would only dispose of non-toxic material like ash and scrap metal. It is easy for me to believe that with large corporations the left hand may not know what the right hand is doing. That the person making these assurances believed them. That whoever was responsible for supervising the transport and disposal of toxic substances in that landfill may have known nothing about such assurances. This is one of the more troubling aspects of corporations – no direct human responsibility as the corporation is a non-human entity – even though human beings are employed by it.
I know it has long been troubling for me to see the Teflon (or its more recent similarly structured derivatives) non-stick coating on my electric kettle and skillet flake off and I’ve not felt entirely reassured that it is safe and inert. There seems to be a good reason for my reluctance and distrust of the chemical industry in general. Thankfully, the last electric skillet I purchased has what appears to be a very durable surface that does not flake off, although it may subtly disintegrate imperceptibly over time. There is no way for me to be certain.
The histories of our various chemical giants like DuPont, 3M, Monsanto and Union Carbide just to name some of the more recognizable is littered with enough worrisome behavior as to justify a degree of bad karma for these businesses. After congressional hearings in 1934, DuPont (who had “supplied half of the world’s gunpowder and was expanding into bombs and poison gas. But it was drawing fire on the home front”) was advised that “the only way DuPont could escape the ‘atmosphere of plague’,” was to “transform its image from that of a purveyor of doomsday weaponry to a maker of peacetime products that benefited American society”.
Thus was born the “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry” blueprint for the future. “Through the marvels of science, synthetic materials would free people from mundane tasks, allowing them to lead lives of leisure and ease.” DuPont’s legacy with Teflon traces itself back to its use in coating “the valves and seals of the Manhattan Project’s uranium enrichment equipment”. There was also created the idea of The Plastic Man in the late 1940s. “This fortunate being would enter a world of ‘color and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break … no crevices to harbour dirt or germs’. He would live his life ‘surrounded on every side by this tough, safe, clean material which human thought has created’.” There was even a comic book series of that name.
It can be frequently seen that large corporations create smaller entities to shirk financial responsibility. Prior to Sept. 1, 1997, a corporation that was then known as the “Monsanto Company” operated an “ag business”, a pharmaceuticals and nutrition business and a chemicals business. A company known as Solutia (currently a wholly-owned subsidiary of Eastman Chemical Company) now operates Monsanto’s former chemicals business. This past July 2015, “DuPont spun off its specialty chemicals division into a separate company called Chemours. The new enterprise will assume the liability for DuPont’s most polluted sites, including Washington Works—but it will only have one-quarter of DuPont’s revenue. Many people with cases pending against DuPont worry that it will use this arrangement to avoid paying damages.”
3M was long the supplier of C8 (perfluorooctanoic acid) to DuPont. C8 is a soaplike substance that gives Teflon its nonstick qualities. It is also found in thousands of household products, including carpeting, waterproof clothes, dental floss, kitty litter and cosmetics to name a few. Only in May 2000 did 3M annouce that it would phase out a close relative of C8 called perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS used in Scotchgard fabric protector. Over the decades, DuPont has dumped huge quantities of Teflon waste into the ocean and into unlined pits along the Ohio River. When 3M began shutting down its C8 production, DuPont began manufacturing the chemical itself.
DuPont was involved in “another cover-up involving a grease-repellant chemical called Zonyl that is used in candy wrappers, pizza boxes and countless other food containers. DuPont had long insisted that the substance didn’t migrate into the food, but internal documents showed that it seeped off packaging at levels three times higher than what the FDA regarded as safe—and then broke down into C8”. C8 has been detected everywhere. In produce and beef in American grocery stores, polar bears in the Arctic, even children in the remote Faeroe Islands. One analysis of blood banks from around the world showed that nearly all of the blood contained C8.
Monsanto claims that they are a relatively new company even though they share the name and history of a company that was founded in 1901. Monsanto can claim credit for Saccharin used in 1902 by Coca-Cola. In 1929, Monsanto became the largest producer of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were later banned in the 1970s. They remain to this day they in the water along Dead Creek in Sauget, IL (just across the Mississippi River from St Louis, MO where Monsanto is headquartered) where Monsanto had its plant for manufacturing PCBs. By 1938 Monsanto was largely involved in the plastics business. And from 1939 to 1945 Monsanto did a lot of research on enriching uranium for Manhattan project. During WWII, Monsanto was involved in the production of PCBs, DDT and chemical weapons. From 1961 to 1971 Monsanto was involved in the production of Agent Orange which was sprayed on the Vietnamese civilians and American troops during the Vietnam War. No wonder they wish to distance themselves from the “old” company !!
It can be disconcerting to learn that under the final version of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 existing chemicals are all “grandfathered” in. Only five chemicals have ever been banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act. This means that only a handful of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market have ever been tested for safety. Manufacturers are required to “inform” the EPA when they introduce new chemicals; however, no testing of such chemicals is required. This regulatory regime still exists today. “We are all, in effect, guinea pigs in a vast, haphazard chemistry experiment.” Since the Toxic Substances Control Act makes it extremely difficult for the EPA to ban chemicals, the best the EPA could do was negotiate with DuPont for a voluntary phase-out by 2015.
I am grateful that Missouri appears to be free of drinking water PFC contamination in the counties that have been tested for it. Our county has not been tested but it is reassuring to know that it is unlikely that we have any concerns related to this particular substance being in our drinking water though larger concerns remain due to C8 being already generally pervasive throughout modern society. You can check your location at the Environmental Working Groups interactive map – PFC Contamination.
~ Information Resources
“Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia” by Mariah Blake posted at Huffington – http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/welcome-to-beautiful-parkersburg/
PFC Contamination in Drinking Water, an interactive map, at the Environmental Working Group – http://static.ewg.org/reports/2015/pfoa_drinking_water/interactive_map/index.html
Monsanto Company History – http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/pages/monsanto-history.aspx
“Dark History of Monsanto” posted at Seattle Organic Restaurants – http://www.seattleorganicrestaurants.com/vegan-whole-foods/dark-history-monsanto/
“Corporate Relationships Among Monsanto Company” – http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/pages/monsanto-relationships-pfizer-solutia.aspx
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
I been reading for some time now, that the plastics industry is wanting to make changes to the resin ID code found on many plastic bottles. Not being a plastic’s engineer but a recycler, the resin code (those single digit numbers found in a chasing arrows triangle on many bottles) was my first introduction to the major types of plastics and the differences in their behavior.
Our business learned that PET (#1) and the PEs (HD #2 & LD #4) don’t mix happily and PP (#5) is better off left out of the mix of PEs but is highly recyclable. PS (#6), where found on containers has been as difficult to recycle as “OTHER” (#7), which doesn’t represent a specific resin nor any of the above. Some of the white solid Styrofoam can now be recycled, reusing packing peanuts has long been common.
Our business grew up right alongside the developing industry for recycling plastics and teaching at community fairs, state conferences and to school kids about looking for the resin recycling code on bottles and recycling them was how we paid back society for making the essence of our business (materials made from recycled content) possible.
We learned about the incompatibility of PP with the PEs when we became involved in a project for an oil museum in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, located in the Petronas Twin Towers. The designer wanted bullnose edges made from our Origins Cool Blue color material on the kiosks and these kiosks were also to be surfaced in that same Origins material. Carving out bullnose edges in solid PE would have been expensive and the resulting appearance, showing the inside of a panel of the appropriate thickness would have looked quite a bit different than the surface characteristics of the thin laminate.
There were three cabinet shop subcontractors but the bullnose edge detail made all of them nervous, for they did not have technical experience with the Origins material and its behaviors. So, our firm elected to do that particular part of the fabrication. There were 3 sizes which required 3 heavy metal molds. We set up a work space with an electric winch for hoisting the molds into a water bath, after the plastic was heated to softness on a silicone strip heater.
The nature of Origins fabrication is that it results in a conglomerate, rather than a homogenized material (which extrusion creates). In our curved forms, PP did not melt or merge with the PE and that is how we discovered that PEs are better off without PP in our resin mix. Ultimately, except for a few, what we define as “market” colors, we settled on a controllable, single resin process for creating the colors we stock and are the basis of our various color formulas. You can view some of the Origins colors at this link – Origins Color Chart.
For probably two decades at least, the resin recycling code has been crucial to the effort to recycle plastic bottles and reduce the load on landfills as well as extending the life of a petroleum product that gets only minimal use in its original incarnation. One of the issues was a misinterpretation of the “chasing arrows” that was initially used, which could be understood as indicating either that the object was made of recycled plastic or that the plastic that it was made from was recyclable, neither of which were factually accurate. It was decided that a simple triangle should replace the chasing arrow symbol on new molds for plastic objects.
Even though abbreviations such as PET, HDPE and PP are now fairly commonplace in addition to the familiar numbers within a triangle symbol, they do not begin to fully describe the complexities of modern day plastics. So, the ASTM International standards group is considering adding extensions to those abbreviations to further identify variations and characteristics within the seven major resin groups. There is a Resin Identification Code subgroup, which has had responsibility for the coding system since 1988. The Resin Identification Code was originally developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry, a trade group.
Some of the information that could be conveyed by a new coding system might be the melt flow, the temperature at which a plastic begins to melt and flow. Some plastics require a high temperature and some require very little heat. The process of making changes in the Resin Identification Code, which began in 2010, is not being rushed. The group is seeking consensus among its members.
Previously, I had the impression that the entire Resin Identification Code system was going to be abandoned; and I was concerned about how much educational value would be wasted. I do know that some of the base level plastics recyclers have brought a lot of technology into their processes to produce cleaner and more consistent material for use by companies such as ours, so that was not a huge concern, but more like a sadness at the thought of losing an old friend.
I am grateful that the ASTM members backed away from that idea, in favor of modifying the existing standards. I currently agree that more information needs to be included on #7 OTHER objects to allow for a greater possibility of those being recycled, rather than trashed in a landfill. In China, there are more than 100 numbers used to identify different combinations which in the US became #7s.
Any changes to the resin code will require the approval of 37 of our 50 states, because these have legislation on their books related to the Resin Identification Code. Even the switch away from the chasing arrows requires approval in some states. It is hoped that details will be finalized by the middle of 2015 but that time frame might have to stretch into 2016 because of the review process.
Even though the Resin Identification Code is definitely useful to the reclaimer there is definite concern that the consumer is not left confused by the changes. The cooperation of consumers in recycling plastics is important enough, that even though there is a need for greater clarification within the industry, the working group is also carefully considering the impact of any changes on environmentally conscious households and the momentum for recycling that is already active.
Information Resources –
2014 – Resin ID codes could get upgraded – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140110/NEWS/140119989/resin-id-codes-could-get-upgraded
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer