The cover of the August 2015 issue of Wired magazine declares – “No hunger. No pollution. No disease. And the end of life as we know it. The Genesis Engine. Editing DNA is now as easy as cut and paste. Welcome to the post-natural world.”
In the early months of this year, I was on a Clementine kick. I loved the bite sized, easy to peel citrus fruit but alas the season ended and so I’ve started eating Red Grapefruit about 3-4 times a week to get my citrus fix. No idea why I crave citrus fruits these days but I honor the urge because it is at least a healthy one.
Imagine my surprise to discover in the Wired article that scientists back in the 1930s began playing around with intentional mutations by irradiating seeds and insect eggs with xrays to scatter the genomes around like shrapnel. Hundreds of undesirable traits were discarded but one that has lasted was the creation of Red Grapefruit. Another was the barley used in brewing most modern beers.
Since then a lot of work has been accomplished on genomes. As recently as 2002, molecular biologists had learned how to delete or replace specific genes using enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases. The next step from that was the technique that used enzymes known as TALENs. But these procedures were expensive and complicated.
Do you know what a palindrome is ? This is a series that is the same back to front and front to back. Some microbiologists that were sequencing the genomes of ancient bacteria and microbes called Archaea (actually the descendants of the first life on Earth !!) noticed recurring segments but didn’t know what they do. They did think they were a bit weird though and named these clusters Crispr.
A lot of people worry about GMOs and a lot of people hate Monsanto for that. And yet, according to the Wired article, scientists do care about the unintended consequences of the genies they are unleashing from their laboratories. Back in 1975, 140 scientists gathered at Asilomar in California in view of the inspiring landscape of the Monterey Penisula on the Pacific Ocean to consider the implications of “recombinant DNA”. That is decrypting and reordering genes to manipulate the source code of life.
The outcome of that meeting was a set of guidelines about how to isolate dangerous experiments and a determination that cloning and messing around with dangerous pathogens should be off-limits but they really couldn’t see the idea of modifying the human “germ line” (which would pass changes on to subsequent generations) as a realistic worry in the mid-1970s.
Fast forward to 2015 and once again researchers met at a conference, this time in Napa Valley, to talk about the implications of genome engineering. The gene editing technique known as Crispr-Cas9 was ALREADY readily accessible by everyone at this conference. Turns out that Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap and fast to move genes around – ANY genes – in any living thing from bacteria to human beings.
And researchers had already been utilizing the 3 year old technique to reverse mutations that cause blindness, stop cancer cells from multiplying or make cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists had rendered wheat invulnerable to powdery mildew and were looking for ways to better meet the food needs of the 9 million people inhabiting this planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter to create ethanol. And pharmaceutical companies have spun off Crispr R&D branches.
By now, you have probably figured out that this technique is revolutionary and that it is perilous !! Crispr could allow genetics researchers to conjure up all the nightmare possibilities that keep some people awake at night – designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi imaginings.
I found the discussion about RNA in the Wired article interesting. In looking at bacteria, the researchers started wondering if Crispr was a primordial immune system. RNA is single-stranded genetic material whereas DNA is double-stranded. “Guide RNA” has been created by combining two strands of RNA into one fragment (and it can be made from whatever genetic “letters” they want and not just from viruses but well – they believe – from just about anything).
A microbiologist in Sweden named Emmanuelle Charpentier was working with Streptococcus pyogenes (yes, in a biohazard chamber alright !!). That is where she found the Cas9 mentioned previously. Cripr makes two short strands of RNA and Cas9 latches onto them. When the Crispr-Cas9 arrives at its destination, Cas9 does something almost magical – it changes shape, grasping the DNA and slicing it with a precise molecular scalpel.
The combination of Guide RNA and Cas9 has created a programmable machine for DNA cutting (hence the title of this blog). The stakes are high in the on-going patent battle (more than one party claims they were the “first”). The licensing of the patent could be worth billions in royalties.
The gene-editing possibilities of Crispr-Cas9 are limited only by scientific creativity and ethics. And there are lots of unknowns still on the frontier. Crispr could be used to treat some debilitating disorder in the womb and it might also be used for a less significant application like skin wrinkling in aging. The medical research community simply hasn’t had enough time to seriously discuss the ethics and safety even as the utilization of the technique rushes forward.
The April 4, 2015 issue of Science News describes the use of Beetle RNA to engineer plants by putting it in their leaves. These genes were inserted in plant cells called plastids. An example of one type of plastid is a chloroplast which performs photosynthesis. So the plant was laced with double-stranded beetle RNA so that if eaten by that beetle, it disabled certain genes and caused their guts to break down. The adult beetles stopped eating and their larvae that feasted on the plants were dead. Researchers believe that the technique is safe because the plastids have their own DNA that doesn’t make it into pollen and so won’t spread the beetle genes from the engineered crops in pollinating other plants.
I can’t claim to feel warm and fuzzy about it. I can only trust that they really do know what they are doing when they use their god-like powers to engineer new crops. Just like with Artificial Intelligence and the singularity that is looming ahead for us, I don’t think there is any stopping the “forward progress” ? of science in the realm of genomes.
~ Information Resources
“Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.” by Amy Maxmen in Wired Magazine – http://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/
Red Grapefruit photo courtesy of wikiHow “How to Eat a Grapefruit” – http://www.wikihow.com/Eat-a-Grapefruit
Archaea graphic from Microbe Hunter by Syazwani Aina posted May 9, 2015 – http://syazwaniainanana.blogspot.com/2015/05/archaea.html
Designer Babies image from Student Collaboration for the 21st Century – “The idea of progress” by Pierre-Yves Reignoux posted Nov 6, 2013 – http://studentcollaboration21.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-idea-of-progress-pierre-yves.html
“Beetle RNA makes crops a noxious meal” by Kate Baggaley posted Feb 26, 2015 Science News – https://www.sciencenews.org/article/beetle-rna-makes-crops-noxious-meal
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
One of my family’s favorite movies is Unstoppable with Dezel Washington. That movie tracks somewhat closely a real life incident that it is based on the CSX 8888, also known as the Crazy 8s incident. In both the movie and the incident there are tanker cars carrying molten phenol and an un-manned “runaway” train. The reasons this happened are the same in both versions – a misaligned switch, an engineer leaving the cab to address it and thinking that applying the independent air brake would be adequate.
The movie is a gripping, seat of your pants drama about how ill prepared the powers that be are to rapidly respond to the inevitable shouldn’ts that still happen. It turns out that when it comes to railroad issues, the powers that be are the railroads themselves (the fox guarding the chicken coop – the serious danger policed by the source of that danger).
I wanted to watch the Unstoppable movie again after I recently listened to the Feb 25, 2015 episode of NPR Fresh Air titled “A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars” which was an interview of the investigative journalist, Marcus Stern. And to complicate things even more, the railroads don’t have 100% control over the “source” of the danger highlighted in this segment but control over the quality of those tanker cars is in the hands of those whose product is inside those tanker cars.
Train wrecks involving tanker cars are increasing in frequency. The most note-worthy of recent disasters in the interview occurred in Lac-Megantic Quebec Canada and involved a train that was unattended, which experienced a failure of its brakes that sent it traveling downhill at speeds reaching 60 mi/hour whereupon it encountered a curve causing it to derail, killing at least 47 people in a bar there on a Saturday night in July 2013.
It is not surprising to discover that BIG money obscures the dangerous risks now taking place. The onset of fracking in North Dakota and the existence of East Coast refineries that were not competitive processing imported oil and the convenience of rail lines and available tank cars to connect the two . . . how BIG is the payoff ? – this whole economic system is “worth tens of billions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars” according to Stern.
So how many tanker cars are we actually talking about ? In 2008, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil. In 2014, just 6 years later, that number had jumped to 400,000. And regarding each train, they are now often 100 tanker cars extending a mile in length carrying a combined total of as much as 3 million gallons. Does this represent some change from trains only a few years ago ? Yeah, it does. In the past when hauling crude oil by rail, there might be only a couple of tankers and they’d be split up over the length of the train, reducing the risk.
Is there some characteristic that makes the North Dakota crude more dangerous. Well, yeah. It is known as “light oil” and it is a lot like gasoline. It’s actually a mixture of oil and liquid natural gases (methane, butane, propane) which are suspended in the oil. As this travels the thousands of miles from North Dakota to the East Coast, the gas part begins to separate from the liquid part leaving a gaseous blanket of propane sitting on top of the liquid oil. A breach and a spark and you have fireballs shooting hundreds of feet in the air with flaming oil shooting in all directions and such explosions can continue for several days. The emergency responders can’t do anything more than keep people away and let it burn out.
Is there something about the tanker cars being used that would make a breach more likely ? Yeah, there is. The most common model is the DOT-111 which was designed back in the 1960s for non-flammable liquids like corn syrup. This particular design is highly likely to rupture in a derailment because the shell is not thick enough. The opening at the top through which the oil is loaded into the tanker can break off in derailments. The valves don’t shut properly. At the bottom, there’s a fitting that is used to remove the oil at the refinery that also tends to break. Both ends of the tanker car need to reinforced as well. The DOT-111 is used by producers and refiners because of the economics – there are simply a lot of old DOT-111s available. Presently as many as 100,000 of them are transporting oil.
Why isn’t anyone doing something about the use of these dangerously inappropriate tanker cars ? The railroad did put into effect in Oct 2011 a mandate for tougher cars with thicker shells, though not nearly as thick as they need to be nor are there the other improvements that could increase the safety of transporting fuel on rails. And the mandate is very limited in scope – it only applies if a “new” car is built. Then, that new tanker must meet the new standards. The problem is that there are still hundreds of thousands of the old “legacy” cars still out there and they are active on the rails.
Here’s where it gets interesting . . . although the railroads are concerned, getting the tanker cars phased out and replaced is NOT under their control. The “shippers” (the refineries that take them and the producers that load them in North Dakota) are the owners of these railcars. Therefore the burden of upgrading these falls on them. And once again, “it’s the money” preventing increases in safety because it is the owners are the ones that are resisting the upgrades. How much would it cost them ? Maybe $3 billion dollars to upgrade all of the tankers.
To make this division of responsibility a bit clearer – the railroads own the track, have the right-of-ways and the locomotives. And railroads cannot legally refuse to carry any specific cargo but must allow their tracks to be open to the transportation of goods generally. Another issue of concern is that the viability of bridges that railroads also own is their responsibility. The railroad is the only party that can tell you whether the bridge is safe and there are no engineering standards for railroad bridges. The federal government does not inspect the bridges nor does it enforce any regulations related to their safety.
Yeah, what about our government ? Isn’t there something they could do ? The regulatory process includes “negotiated rulemaking”. What this means is that there are a lot of secret behind-closed-door meetings between industry and policy makers. That gives the industry a very loud voice which allows them to delay, dilute, or delete provisions that they object to. And there is gridlock in the process. Here’s an example, the Department of Transportation (regarding anything related to crude-by-rail) has not been able to get these regulations officially functional for more than a year and a half. It is no surprise that the rail-related industries put millions of dollars into lobbying in Washington to keep everything going in the direction of their best interests.
After Lac-Megantic, the Department of Transportation did issue an emergency order that trains may not be left with their engines running while sitting unattended on tracks without “specific” permission. Yet this practice continues and if the railroad receives a complaint about it, they will assert that they were “allowed” to do that. Why ? Because it says in the small print only that they have to have “a plan” (inconveniently in a drawer somewhere ?) for leaving the railroad cars unattended with their engines running.
Also mandated after Lac-Megantic, the railroads must notify state emergency officials whenever they’re going to be sending any train through a state that has more than a million gallons of oil being transported. But anything less than that and the states won’t get notified. Even when notifications are transmitted that’s no guarantee that the information will reach the local community level.
Recently President Obama vetoed the bill approving the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline modification. A Senate vote to override the veto fell short on Wed, March 4th. That certainly is okay with me. I wonder however who that pipeline actually benefits financially. What I found was that it is an indication of the power of the oil industry over this country. The very first order of business when the Republicans took over the Senate was a bill related to an oil pipeline for a foreign oil company to get their product passed through our country to the Gulf coast refineries and ports for export to other countries. Personally, I wonder if the whole Keystone issue isn’t simply a distraction from the more serious concerns that Stern highlighted in his rail tanker car report.
Officially, the reason the president vetoed the bill “is that it circumvents a long-standing administrative process for evaluating whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country.”, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. In an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Jonathan Waldman suggests that “Getting behind a law holding pipelines to higher standards seems an executive act far more courageous than a veto.” while acknowledging that “In the generation since, regulations have actually gotten laxer . . .”
In the Marcus Stern interview, one of the arguments for a pipeline – not needing to transport by rail any longer was ably refuted. He said – “… the reasons I think that producers and refiners have turned to rail is because pipelines are just so difficult to get approved. You can look at the Keystone XL Pipeline – the big debate over it – and it’s become a lightning rod for this whole discussion. But building pipelines is very contentious. And in addition to that, it takes a lot of time to do it. There’s a big upfront expense. And by the time they were putting pipelines into North Dakota, the North Dakota play might be played out.”
A lot of the Keystone Pipeline already exists as part of an infrastructure that has been built over the last 50 years. All the uproar is about “straightening” it and adding the final completing link to the Gulf Coast. So this pipeline infrastructure project just may not really make either economic or environmental sense. The Alberta Canada Premier, Jim Prentice, puts the issue bluntly this way – “under the Free Trade Agreement . . . this is a free-market product that’s moving across the North American continent one way or the other. Right now, in the absence of pipeline capacity, it will be increasingly carried by railcars. That is not the safest way. It’s not the most environmentally responsible way to carry hydrocarbons”. And it is no surprise that he believes that “… pipelines are an infinitely better choice”. Clearly, blocking further progress to finish the Keystone pipeline won’t ever prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil.
Jonathan Waldman asserts – “Pipelines are the safest way to move oil. They’re an order of magnitude more reliable than trains, and trains are an order of magnitude more reliable than trucks.” Still, whether it is rail or pipeline the ways of regulation in this country are discouraging – “dramatic explosion, calls for reform and powerful resistance”. Waldman makes some reassuring points about the state of technology to make pipelines safer – “smart pigs” that “can record tons of information, and capture unprecedented levels of detail” and are “more agile” – able to traverse narrow pipelines and make tight turns. He notes that leak detection software has gotten better and is now running on big databases that can monitor developing corrosion in pipelines over time.
I think back to Marcus Stern’s point about pipelines in general and it would seem to me that tanker railcars are the more “flexible” choice to move product around, whether to the East Coast or the Gulf Coast. Why not strengthen the overall safety of the rail system ? – the tanker cars, the bridges, the travel ways through the population centers around refineries – why not upgrade the whole rail system ? if the US is going to be “in the petroleum producing business” for a long time any way but perhaps continuously moving around to develop different geographical areas of our energy reserves. I’m not a fan of fracking – not at all !! – but my feelings about it aren’t going to stop it as long as it is reducing our energy dependence on politically volatile areas like the Middle East and of course if there’s a lot of money to be made and lobbying of politicians to support that effort.
Plastic is a petroleum product. Therefore, it would seem safe to assume that when we recycle plastic, we are extending the life of that already extracted natural resource. When we use it for serious construction purposes – such as restroom stall partitions – it should mean that there is less of a need to extract “new” petroleum. Or so one might hope – though markets operate on more and more stuff being generated as a rule. The Container Store believes in Conscious Capitalism and one of the ways they show that by their actions is by using Yemm & Hart’s 513 Tornado for vanity countertops in their retail establishment’s customer restrooms. Funny, somehow the color reminds me of oil flowing . . .
~ Information Resources
Unstoppable (2010 film) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unstoppable_(2010_film)
The CSX 8888 Incident – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSX_8888_incident
A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars – interview w/Marcus Stern at NPR Fresh Air – February 25, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/25/389008046/a-hard-look-at-the-risks-of-transporting-oil-on-rail-tanker-cars
Obama Vetoes Keystone XL Bill, But Fight over Climate-Threatening Oil Pipeline Isn’t Over – posted at Democracy Now.org on Feb 25, 2015 – http://www.democracynow.org/2015/2/25/obama_vetoes_keystone_xl_bill_but
Keystone XL Pipeline Benefits U.S. And Canada, Alberta Premier Says – interview with Jim Prentice, Alberta Premier for NPR Morning Edition on Feb 04, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/04/383724544/keystone-xl-pipeline-benefits-u-s-and-canada-alberta-premier-says
Don’t Kill Keystone XL. Regulate It. by Jonathan Waldman posted March 6, 2015 – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/opinion/dont-kill-keystone-xl-regulate-it.html
What We Stand For – blog by The Container Store – http://standfor.containerstore.com/category/conscious-capitalism/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
It is always inconvenient when the way we’ve always done things becomes problematic. Take BPA – I recently heard a NPR program that indicated that careful research has not proven a significant concern. The programming was based on news that the US Food and Drug Administration published a paper finding that BPA was safe in low doses. That program indicated that in testing the substance on amphibians, the amount required to show any estrogenic effect was so high, that it is unlikely that any human being would ever receive such a dose.
BPA is used in a wide assortment of products, including paper receipts, plastic containers, and canned goods. Scientists are concerned that the chemical mimics the effect of female hormones and causes medical problems, such as cancer, learning disabilities, and immune system disorders. BPA exploded into the headlines in 2008, when stories about “toxic baby bottles” and “poison” packaging became ubiquitous. Good Morning America issued a “consumer alert.” The New York Times urged Congress to ban BPA in baby products. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned in the Huffington Post that “millions of infants are exposed to dangerous chemicals hiding in plain view.” Concerned parents purged their pantries of plastic containers, and retailers such as Walmart and Babies R Us started pulling bottles and sippy cups from shelves. Bills banning BPA in infant care items began to crop up in states around the country.
However, since the first alarms about BPA were raised, new forms of packaging have evolved to reassure human beings that their food is safe to eat. Personally, I would rather err on the side of over-reaction, if alternatives exist – than take a chance of some chemical that has raised concerns. And yet, that is not the end of this story and it is difficult to feel reassured.
Mother Jones has published information that BPA-Free Plastics are not necessarily risk free either. The problem as identified by Michael Green, who runs the Oakland, California-based Center for Environmental Health, relates to research suggesting some of these new generation, BPA-free plastics, contain synthetic estrogens, too.
An editorial in Plastics News for March 10, 2014 by Don Loepp notes that “many types of common plastics — not just polycarbonate and epoxy, which use bisphenol A as a feedstock — test positive for estrogenic activity (based upon the research of George Bittner) and poses important questions – “Are the levels of EA high enough to be concerned about ? Are plastics safe ? Are plastics companies that market certain materials as BPA-free selling products that are actually safer ?”
There are plenty of concerns to go around. In the FDA study, it is said the lab was entirely contaminated with the BPA chemical; and therefore, not controlled enough to be reliable. George Bittner is said to have a conflict of interest, in that he founded an Austin TX based company called Plastipure Inc, which markets plastics that it claims are “significantly safer materials, free of all estrogenic activity”. Eastman Chemical won a federal lawsuit last year against Plastipure when a jury found that Plastipure had made misleading statements about Eastman’s BPA-free Tritan product.
The controversy has set off a bitter fight with the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry. The American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for plastics makers and has sought to refute the science linking BPA to health problems, has teamed up with Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical—the maker of Tritan, a widely used plastic marketed as being free of estrogenic activity—in a campaign to discredit Bittner and his research. The company has gone so far as to tell corporate customers that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected Bittner’s testing methods. (It hasn’t.) Eastman also sued CertiChem and its sister company, PlastiPure, to prevent them from publicizing their findings that Tritan is estrogenic, convincing a jury that its product displayed no estrogenic activity. And it launched a PR blitz touting Tritan’s safety, targeting the group most vulnerable to synthetic estrogens: families with young children.
“It can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe,” the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, said in one web video, before an image of a pregnant woman flickered across the screen. True as far as that goes but that doesn’t necessarily reassure consumers. The recycle code can help reduce risks – “The number 7 doesn’t necessarily mean the product contains BPA,” according to Rebecca Roberts, PhD, a BPA researcher and assistant professor of biology at Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA. “It means it might.” Seven signifies a group of miscellaneous plastics including polycarbonate plastic (BPA is used to harden this type of plastic). The number 3, which stands for Poly-vinyl Chloride (PVC), may also contain BPA, whereas the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are very unlikely to contain BPA. Our Origins plastics are primarily #2 HDPE, some # 4 LDPE and a small amount of #5 Poly-propylene. But since the numbers 7 and 3 don’t always mean the product contains BPA, how can you know what to toss and what to keep? “Unfortunately, there’s no real way to tell,” says Roberts.
As long as we live and breathe and our hearts beat, Life will continue to present complex safety concerns. Living is dangerous and no more so, than in our modern times with the prevalence of volumes of chemicals with little known side effects and a lot of suspicions. I believe that controversies can be good for materials and the public health. Cork experienced a similar phase, when age-old practices were shown to contribute to a concern known as cork taint. Into the fray, came metal screw caps and synthetic cork forms as replacements. Natural cork producers responded by improving their practices to take the production of cork to food or pharmaceutical grade safety. Even though “cork taint” was addressed, the industry must now make the case (which can be ably made) that natural cork has aspects that make paying more worthwhile.
Dr Paulo Lopes explained his research in conjunction with the University of Bordeaux. It suggests that bottles sealed with cork do transmit oxygen to wine, but there is no ingress of external oxygen: 90% of cork’s structure is air, so cork itself is responsible for transmission to the wine. Screwcaps, on the other hand, are basically impermeable and run a risk of ‘reduction’ (sulphide problems), whilst synthetic closures allow ingress of atmospheric oxygen, failing to maintain their seal over time. Dr Lopes’s hypothesis is that cork is the best ‘balanced’ of the closure materials, and given careful quality control in manufacture, does not allow atmospheric ingress or high variability.
As environmentalists and parents, we are willing to pay more for higher quality foods and products. As business people, we support the usage and recycling of plastics and wine cork stoppers. Knowing what’s best is never easy in a modern world full of conflicting and abundant information. We can each, only do our best.
~ Information Resources
“Research Debates BPA’s Influence in the Womb” by Dale McGeehon posted Feb 13, 2013 – http://www.polymersolutions.com/blog/research-debates-bpas-influence-in-the-womb/
“The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics – And the Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury it” by Mariah Blake published in Mother Jones March/April 2014 Issue – http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/tritan-certichem-eastman-bpa-free-plastic-safe
“Plastics, safety and the media” by Don Loepp posted March 10, 2014 in Plastics News – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140314/OPINION01/140319934/plastics-safety-and-the-media
“11 Ways to Lower Your BPA Exposure” by Katie Kerns posted at Everyday Health – http://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-home-pictures/11-ways-to-lower-your-bpa-exposure.aspx#/slide-1
“Wine Cork Tile Introduction” by Stephen & Deborah Yemm published 2014 at Yemm & Hart website – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/winecorktile/wct_introduction.html
“Cork fights back” by Tom Cannavan posted July 2008 on Wine-Pages – http://www.wine-pages.com/features/amorim-cork.htm
“Origins Introduction” by Stephen & Deborah Yemm published 2014 at Yemm & Hart website – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/origins/originsintroduction.html
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
We are such a globally “sourced” world now but even if that keeps the costs of goods low to the consumers, I don’t really think this is a good thing for the mass of humanity and quality of life. I would rather pay more and have a world that works for everyone. My partner, Stephen Yemm, often muses that countries should keep some basic goods production in operative condition – both for employment and for security. Also, we both became a bit more aware of the issue of human trafficking by watching a 2010 movie recently – based on a true story – titled The Whistleblower.
So, this desire for “a world that works for everyone” is not a bleeding heart liberal perspective but a very practical and realistic perspective, on the state of the global economy as it exists at the moment. There is too much emphasis on more and more consumption, for one thing. There is too much exploitation going on – of people and resources. There is something wrong when local agricultural land is purchased and used to grow foodstuffs for a more affluent consumer, while the local population is left dependent upon charitable “excess” big ag food hand-outs.
On Halloween, during a long drive with family from St Louis, after having a bit of themed fun there at the old Lemp Brewery (such well-built architecture; and so sound, even at a century old !!), my husband and I explored issues of restroom partition hardware. The “Lemp” story is about how those old German brewers recognized the advantages of LOCAL natural resources (including the river and the huge caverns below) to bring financial success into their ventures. While I don’t have any ready answers regarding our own business’ involvement with anodized bright aluminum finishing for restroom partition hardware – thanks to my iPhone, during that long drive home on Halloween night, I learned a lot.
It does pay to ask questions, and do the research, and try to understand the environmental complexities of the choices that we make. We first began to have questions about the origins of the hardware that is kitted up by our “partner” in restroom fabrication some years ago. In truth, we only have control over the high density polyethylene plastic that we source from 100% post-consumer processors but which is the bulk by volume of any restroom partition installation. However, the buck stops here at our business, when it comes to financial involvements. We experienced a shower installation which included stainless steel hardware. Imagine our disappointment and shock, when rust started showing through !! In researching the problem, the best answer was that it had an “inferior” coating. It seemed to have been sourced off-shore by our fabricator in order to save money and keep costs low.
Rather than accept their offer of an inexpensive solution (they were willing to replace that hardware with pretty much the same product), we simply couldn’t accept the possibility that it would just rust all over again; and therefore, our customer would be left disappointed once again, regarding the performance of our produce on their project. So, we paid more, to purchase “Made in the USA” stainless steel hardware; and we have heard no more complaints about that installation. Another restroom partition associated partner, recently shared with us their concerns about the environmental impacts of brightly anodized aluminum hardware being sourced off-shore, most likely from China. Stories abound about real circumstances that would leave any thoughtful person concerned, about China’s inability to police sufficiently, all the businesses that sell products into the United States. We are proud be a “Made in the USA” producer of quality building-related materials.
On our drive home from St Louis, thanks to google and my iPhone, I got a little education about the anodizing process, which includes significant potentials for disturbing pollution. It was inspiring to read the story of an Ohio manufacturer, Anomatic Corporation of Newark, OH, which expresses itself as a great role model and an example of “government working” and the value of enforcing environmental regulations. The air and water that people in the vicinity of that processor must cope with, is less likely to cause health impacts because they are a business that actually cares, even if they are also coerced a bit by regulation. Much of that anodizing process has moved off-shore because the environment oversight is less burdensome for the multinational corporations whose practices are often exploitative. You can read about the great lengths the Anomatic Corporation goes to, in order to anodize metal (which does lend important durability aspects) in an environmentally safe way, at this link – http://www.anomatic.com/pdf/anomatic-sustainability-the-environment.pdf.
The tide goes out and the tide comes back in. Such are the cycles of nature. After WWII, the United States sent their genius of automation, Dr Edwards Deming, to help the Japanese recover from the wounds of war. I still remember when the words “Made in Japan” suggested the same inferior quality that the words “Made in China” do now. I know that I read labels – I’m not buying any food product for my children or our felines that isn’t made in the United States. I simply lack the confidence to trust my beloveds well-being, to Chinese oversight.
I am happy to see some plastics manufacturing returning to the United States but I have deep concerns about fracking, which is the source of the industry’s optimism. I am happy that there are efforts to train workers for sewing jobs in the state of Minnesota. Garment and Shoe Factories were once major employers in our region. Mining was also. I think we are shortsighted to have allowed the demise of the steel industry in this country. We are short-sighted not to care about the well-being of people – about a world that works for everyone. I mean that word “works” in a very broad sense – the people have “work” to do that maintains their sense of pride and self-worth, that the systems that supply basic goods – food, clothing, etc – to people are maintained locally, without the need to transport such items by air or ocean.
I want a world that works because everything is in balance again; and people and resources are not exploited, simply to line the pockets of the wealthiest 1%. Rising wages in Asia are also helping to return “work” to the United States. I know that it is naïve to expect that automation and robotics are going to cease being an important aspect of production; and honestly, to the degree that it keeps people out of harmful environments, I’m all for it. However, for a long as 30 years ago, I personally believed that such a return to a balanced economic situation is necessary – for the overall quality of life to improve and progress. Those in the significant position of specifying materials are part of that opportunity for improvement. The more informed and aware these professionals are, regarding the small details and fine points of their choices, the more certain it becomes that our children will find in their own tomorrows, that the world does work for everyone; and that local well-being is an important part of that equation.
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer