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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Becoming Mainstream

In the early days of a product, it may be seen as novel or even so far out on the leading edge that it may not ever be fully developed. Currently, a lot of materials research in focused on making materials store electricity for dispersal later, much like a battery does and actually replacing the battery itself, or magnetizing a material to enhance its properties somehow. Currently, there is research into glass fabric that includes a thermoelectric (TE) generator embedded into it. It’s flexible enough to be worn as a bracelet and it has been a lack of flexibility that has been an issue with TE generators. The materials required to absorb a significant amount of energy have previously been rigid and difficult to work into a wearable form. Already, the technology currently draws enough to power a watch or a small electronic device.

KAIST Wearable Tech

KAIST Wearable Tech

And where does it get the power from ? The human body. The technology collects the difference in heat between your body and the outside environment. This excess is then converted into energy through thermoelectric generation. It’s like a solar panel targeted to body heat. By using glass fabric, the team at South Korea’s KAIST University (lead by Professor Byung Jin Cho) is able to produce a material that is lightweight, flexible and capable of generating a significant amount of energy per square centimeter. Professor Cho expects “that this technology will find further applications in scale-up systems such as automobiles, factories, aircrafts, and vessels where we see abundant thermal energy being wasted.” This technology is still in development but is likely to emerge as wrist-style wearables like smartwatches and heart monitors.

There was a time when solar and wind power were way out on that kind of leading edge. While an environmentalist’s heart may have quickly recognized the value of infinitely renewable energy early on (say decades ago) the cost was often prohibitive. Those venture capitalists that were the most forward thinking were those who risked their investments to bring about the revolution in energy taking place in today’s world that utilizes a variety of sources to reduce the harmful impacts of an over-reliance on traditional petroleum sources.

According to an article by Michael Grunwald in Time Magazine’s September 8-15, 2014 issue, venture capitalists now see wind and solar as such a safe investment that it is no longer attractive to them. Who we see financing now are the BIG guys (Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs). In other words, solar has gotten too mainstream for the out front, leading edge venture capitalists to enjoy playing. This is good news – clean power appears to be with us for a long haul.

house-solar-and-wind-energy

Certainly, the technology is now cheaper and more predictable – and produces good steady returns for the risk-adverse institutional capital in the economy. Happily, it is stated by Grunwald that green electricity now produces “more than half of new US generating capacity”. And this is good news overall for homeowners and utility rate payers (if their utilities participate in buying wind power). And of course, it IS good news for our planet.

And although refinements to the technical aspects (better solar panels, better wind turbines, cheaper batteries and biofuels) will continue to make clean energy more and more desirable, it is the financial innovations coming from the wizards of Wall Street that are making news at Time magazine. One of these innovations is the solar lease. No longer does a home or business owner have to fund upfront as much as tens of thousands of dollars to go solar. Like a mortgage or car payment, there are now 20-year leases.

Time will tell if this is really good news because most of us have not forgotten, and are still feeling the effects of, Wall Street’s penchant for “securitization”. It still hurts to even think about all the damage such novelties have wrought. The market for commercial solar securities has grown from $1 billion in 2008 to $15 billion today. There are even more obscure schemes a foot and more understandable formats like green bonds (growing from $2 billion in 2012 to almost $17 billion in just the first half of 2014).

When Yemm & Hart first began to market Origins (our 100% post-consumer, high-density polyethylene panels made from #2 plastics sourced from milk jugs and detergent bottles primarily), we were in a brave new world. Those who bought our materials tended to be fringe artists, product developers and university students (and these still make up interest and small purchases of our materials). In our early days, we tried not to influence what someone might decide to make out of our material. We left that door wide open. Our first restroom partitions were created at the request of customers. It was not a huge leap for solid resin partitions were already in the market and accepted but in those days “recycled” was often a scary word for the specifier. After all it was trash or garbage and sorting out the wrong resin types from bales of plastics was a huge undertaking. Cleaning that plastic was also challenging.

Yet over time technology came in and businesses that specialize in the initial stages of making post-consumer waste a reliable material. Along with volume and predicatability of supply quality came mainstreaming. For us, mainstreaming means partnering with specialized business entities – architects and interior designers to recommend the specifications and factories that already had a long track record in the engineering and fabrication of restroom partitions for example. With mainstream acceptance comes new competition but sometimes, what a company does – such as we commit Yemm & Hart to continue to make available – turns out to be too much trouble and not worth the cost (unless the project is so large that such additional costs are easily absorbed).

Origins 304 SF Natural  at NYC Parks, Olmstead Center

Origins 304 SF Natural
at NYC Parks, Olmstead Center

Today, while the product Origins has become a mainstream choice for restroom partitions and countertops, Yemm & Hart is still able to consider a project as small as one stall or a single vanity in a washroom, while at the same time able to meet projects as large as The Pentagon (in post 9/11 repairs), the Ohio DNR renovation of a former department store or a Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. We are confident that we can handle any size of project because we have carefully selected the best partners to assist us in providing the customer with mainstream reliability.

~ Information Resources

“Wearable Tech Powered By Body Heat Could Be Reality” posted by Ryan Matthew Pierson on April 17, 2014 – http://wearableworldnews.com/2014/04/17/wearable-tech-powered-body-heat-reality/

“Wall Street Goes Green” posted by Michael Grunwald on August 28, 2014 – http://time.com/3204258/wall-street-goes-green/

“Origins 304 SF Natural at NYC Parks, Olmstead Center” – http://www.yemmhart.com/

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

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Recycled Content is NOT Enough

In the earliest days of our recycled materials business, just wanting to do something about a problem was cause for celebration and we received lots of media attention because “recycled materials” were all the rage back in the 1990s. It’s nice to have such advantages as current “buzz” at the beginning of a new venture.

It was not very long, however, until wanting to be known for the quality of our materials was acknowledged by us as being more important than the simple fact that we were doing something useful regarding the quality of our planetary environment. Thus began a continuous effort at improving the processes used to make our materials. Thankfully, most of that effort progressed rather quickly.

So, it is easy for me to understand, why one of our country’s largest users of materials in general, the automotive industry, would be reluctant to use recycled or bio-based plastics. In fact, I’ve come up against competitors using such fears or concerns, to try and talk potential customers for our recycled plastics (in restroom partition applications) out of using “trash”. Well, no one who cares about quality is selling anyone else garbage. The recycling industry is justifiably proud of the efforts it goes to, in order to provide CLEAN, quality products to its customers.

Quality DOES Matter

Quality DOES Matter

Sometimes, such fears and concerns are simply an excuse or a ploy (as described above). Certainly, one needs to make sure of the quality of the material they plan to use. That could be said of any product or material, not applying such reasoning purely on the basis of something having been recycled.

So, okay, I can agree with Eric Connell, a senior engineer at Toyota in Ann Arbor, MI when he says “Using these recycled and bio-based materials is only going to make sense where it is the best option”. In fact, as a supplier of recycled materials, one of our constant challenges comes from that need to do extra processing, to reuse materials that have had previous usage in our world. There is a cost to that. Realistically, however, there is a cost to extracting materials.

We do not price our product to be below other suppliers. To be honest, we never consider that. In order to keep on doing what we do, we must cover ALL of our costs and have something left over to ride out cycles of economic activity, when they collapse as has been the recent experience financially worldwide. That said, we are not greedy. We do not simply charge however much the market will bear but only a modest amount as prudence indicates.

So, when a project is budget-driven, as Mr Connell himself admits is part of the equation for the automotive industry (defining “best” as “And that could be cost.” among other concerns), we may not get the job. However, we try to temper the budget-driven mentality of profit-driven decisions by offering “uniquely” appealing products, such as some of the color offerings in our Origins line of materials.

One of the motivators that CAN make a difference is increased “awareness” of environmental factors and costs on the part of the customer and consumer. When a manufacturer knows that YOU are paying attention, they get more serious about trying to satisfy you. After all, you speak with your wallet, with your purchasing power, and they all know that.

Toyota Lexus CT Hybrid

Toyota Lexus CT Hybrid

It is a happy thing to know that Toyota’s 2014 CT 200h hybrid Lexus uses 30% plant-based PET materials for the floor mats and trim. It is nice to know that the car has been so designed that 90% of it will be easy to dismantle and recycle (if there are places for those parts to go). The automotive industry is not only a high volume user of materials, they are the source of a huge volume of “discarded” material as well. Cars are not soda pop bottles !!

2014 Ford Fusion Energi

2014 Ford Fusion Energi

The Ford Fusion Energi, a hybrid vehicle currently in development by the car company, uses the same material to line the car’s insides as Coke uses to make its plastic bottles. The plant-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate) can be found in the seat cushions and in the door panel inserts. “PET is made by having two chemicals react together – terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. Terephthalic acid isn’t produced by plants but ethylene glycol is. That is the sustainable part to making PET,” said Anil Netravali, Professor, Fibre Science Programme, Cornell University.

Yemm & Hart repeatedly gets inquiries and interest from entities like the automotive industry, though we’ve yet to hit the right material for the right application to win big with the car companies. As Mr Connell advises – “The message is that you shouldn’t give up.” Certainly, we continue to do what we do in the smartest ways possible. As a customer and consumer you shouldn’t give up either – continue to demand the re-use of extracted natural resources, rather than accepting the “throw away”, easy way out, mentality as the “best” option. For in the long run, it is NOT.

~ Information Resources

“Carmakers want to be green, but need consistent material performance” by Jim Johnson posted Apr 30, 2014 – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140430/NEWS/140439994/carmakers-want-to-be-green-but-need-consistent-material-performance

“Ford lines cars with Coke’s plastic bottle material” at World of Chemicals posted Nov 20, 2013 – http://www.worldofchemicals.com/media/ford-lines-cars-with-cokes-plastic-bottle-material/6601.html

For quality recycled materials, visit Yemm & Hart – http:www.yemmhart.com

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

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