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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Spring Planting in the Forest

Bare Root Seedling in Plowed Groove

Bare Root Seedling in Plowed Groove

I thought I’d share my family’s story as a way of explaining why I never got around to posting a blog here last week. My family has spent most of the last week planting trees. Back in 2002, we entered into a federal government program to reduce soil erosion and contracted to have 18,000 mixed hardwood trees planted in the riparian buffers of our major perennial stream. For two years after that, my husband mowed between the rows of trees because we refused to use herbicides to kill off the Fescue and that was the compromise we had arrived at with the government to allow us not to do that and still receive their financial assistance. My husband also walked the rows each year and hand-planted seedlings to replace any of the trees that had died with new trees. During that phase we added in evergreens and the flowering trees, Dogwood and Redbud.

It was during that time that I was pregnant with our youngest and we were searching for a name for him. For personal reasons related to his siblings, my husband wanted a name that began with “T”. We have a lot of awesome rock here on our farm and one day he came home to me after some hand-planting work and said – “I have it !! We can name him Tree Stone !!” I said no, no, no that is not a proper name and then inspired said, “Let us call him Treston”. And that story in why in some of our most fun and humorous moments we will sometimes refer to him as “Tree Stone” or “Plant Rock”.

Last year the crazy restrictions and conditions for receiving state government assistance to plant more trees caused us to abandon that plan after many hours of researching and planning by my husband because it simply did not make economic sense (it was going to cost us a lot of money that we did not have at the time) and the risks it entailed (having to repay monies received and even pay penalties on it) if we did not perform precisely as instructed were simply not acceptable. Encouraging us even more, was the fact that the contractor who was supposed to do that work for us, simply would not return our calls. It was too large of a project to go forward with all things considered. So my husband and two sons hand-planted 500 evergreen trees. This caused my husband to grow concerned that he would not live long enough to fulfill his vision of replacing our pastures with new forest with what remains of his own lifetime at such a pace.

My husband has been in the midst of this year’s project for months with lots and lots of planning in advance. We even spent an afternoon with an older man and his wife in a neighboring county. Interestingly, we first met this man back in 2002 but decided not to work with him because his values at the time did not seem aligned with ours. Now this year, my husband sought to learn everything he could from this man’s experience in machine planting trees. Not only did we visit him but several times my husband had long telephone conversations with him before we were ready to move forward with financial investments into this year’s planting.

P1040591

We bought an implement for tree planting. My husband modified it to make it safer and more useful for including our youngest son in the family project even including a seat belt for him. Beginning in late February, after we had already ordered and paid for this year’s bare root seedlings, we had almost 3 weeks of snow continually on the ground – first 7″, followed by 5″. We had lots of single digit and teen temperatures during that time and there was a very, very slow melting of that snow, immediately followed by a significant rainfall.

When asked about when I thought we should pick up our trees and begin planting, I had suggested to my husband that he not pick up the trees until this week. However even though I thought we needed more drying out time but he went ahead picked the trees up at the nursery last week. Now the clock was ticking against us for the trees need to be put into the ground as quickly as possible once they are out of cold storage at the nursery. My husband still made good use of the extra “early” days by doing some replacement hand-planting of the rows that he and our sons hand-planted during last year’s effort and also hand-planting 25 Cypress trees into a wetland area.

Suburban Stuck in the Mud

Suburban Stuck in the Mud

By Sunday, we tried to start planting Walnuts according to his plan which was to start in the bottoms near some of the trees we had planted back in 2002. The field was simply too wet. I immediately got our Suburban stuck. At least we managed to do all the training sessions that first day – mine for shuttling trees and water, my oldest son for driving the tractor and my youngest son (age 10-1/2) for managing the seedlings, handing the appropriate trees to my husband and telling him the moment to “plant” in order to keep a specific distance between trees and our son’s instructions included picking a “wildlife” specie to be interspersed after every 6 hardwood trees.

Springfield Planting Plan

Springfield Planting Plan

You can get an idea of scale by noticing the little house in the red square at the bottom left of this image. This is only about half the entire length of this particular field. We will plant the other half in some subsequent year.

My older son, Simeon, was in charge of driving the tractor.

My older son, Simeon, was in charge of driving the tractor.

Eventually the impossible wetness of the field caused my husband to give up on the idea of getting any more planting done other than a very tiny start we had made on Sunday afternoon. He’s a pretty persistent, determined kind of guy so giving up entirely wasn’t easy for him to do but the reality could not be denied. The drag of the plow on the planter in that mud would cause the tractor’s tires to spin even though thankfully the tractor never became stuck so that we ended up with a bigger problem on our hands. We didn’t even try to go out to plant on Monday but gave the fields a warm dry day to become more workable. Then, our oldest son (age 14) suggested that we really ought to start at the uphill part of the field or at least in the middle. My husband was able to agree to a Plan B to plant in the middle of the field but in an attempt to keep the spacing on his original plan, he went out and flagged the spacing for two of those rows according to the downhill Walnut row.

On Tuesday afternoon, we went out and started uphill from the middle with the Northern Red Oaks and managed to get through the Black Gum after about 4 hours as the cold wind and approaching darkness put an end to that day’s work. On Wednesday, we expected rain by 2pm for the next 48 hours and so we got an early start, expecting to have to quit early. The field was the driest yet and so we turned back downhill from the middle. Good fortune kept the rain at bay and we ended up being out there for 9 hours until dark. There were some light sprinkles that came but nothing strong enough to put a stop to the day’s work. However it did rain that night and was lightly raining on Thursday.

P1040593

So on Thursday, my sons and I were given the “day off”. My husband went out and hand-planted the “wetter” areas that gave us so much trouble on Sunday (the Walnut rows) by hand. He admitted that it would take many weeks for that area to actually dry out. On Friday, we got an early start – not as early as Wednesday but still put in 7 hours (working until dark). We finished the big field but still had a lot of seedlings left over, so we went to Plan B below for the excess trees.

Halcyon Planting Plan

Halcyon Planting Plan

By the end of Friday, there were only 300 trees left and so my husband and older son took care of them in about 2-1/2 hours on Saturday and allowed myself and the youngest son to stay home. These trees went into the field to the northeast of my deceased in-laws old log cabin.

Here’s the tally for this year.

Total Hardwood Trees = 2,350. About 200-300 per species. The mix included – Black Walnut, Black Cherry, White Oak, Mixed Hickory, Shumard Oak, Sweet Gum, Northern Red Oak, Black Gum, Black Oak and Chinkapin Oak.

Total “Wildlife” Species = 360. The mix included – Black Chokeberry, Black Locust, Eastern Wahoo, False Indigo, Flowering Dogwood, Red Mulberry, Redbud, Slender Bushclover, Smooth Sumac, White Fringetree and Wild Plum.

And another 25 Cypress trees in the wetlands area.

15-03 Post-planting Closure

The work is not yet entirely complete. As I write this, my husband is back out in the field on the tractor because we can’t leave the plowed groove “open”. The little rodent like critters would utilize that as a “highway” to munch on the roots ending the future of our trees. The diagram above represents the slow and tedious process as he uses one of the front tires on the tractor to close the plowed grooves. The dots represent seedlings in a row.

The long-range overall plan is to replant all the Fescue pasture that my husband and in-laws created back in the late 1970s/early 1980s in trees so that we won’t have to burn the fields to keep them open anymore. We will do that planting over about 5-6 years time in sections of about the same size or quantity as we did this year. By doing this intentional planting, we are modifying what Nature would do in returning fields to forest. In the natural cycle, Cedars, Locust, Sumac and Persimmons are among the first to take root in a fallow field. We have stands of tall Pines here that are described as succession trees, these are what grow next in the areas that once were crop fields. Later on the hardwoods begin to take hold. This cycle would create some marketable timber after 100-150 years of time elapsed.

At this time, hardwoods have the most commercial value as timber. We have planted a lot of hardwoods including quite a few species of Oak which do well and are native here. We are protecting the farm in perpetuity as long as there are descendants to live here as stewards of this extraordinarily beautiful land. Our sons will certainly be able to follow our Forest Management Plan which will have them in another logging cycle in about 30 years and therefore, they may achieve the long-term funding benefits for the continuation of this farm twice in their lifetimes. The trees my sons have been involved in planting may benefit them at the end of their lifetimes or will be of financial usefulness to their children some day.

Most people do not have such a long-view regarding what they do on the land they have possession of. I believe that is why it is somewhat rare for anyone to put so much time, effort and money into planting trees – they see no personal benefit in doing so. Certainly, serious environmentalists will always consider planting trees beneficial for the planet and all her creature’s health and vitality.

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

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