Squeezed Out ?

Financial Squeeze

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from my weekly blogs here. There was an unexpected but necessary trip to spend Thanksgiving with my aging parents, followed by the need to prepare a traditional kind of Christmas for my children. The week day placement of the year-end seasonal holidays this year were not totally conducive to business interests in general but were highly supportive to taking a bit of time to focus on family and rest once the 25th had passed. It’s been difficult to get back into the routine even with January arriving as my intentions last Sunday to resume my blog were waylaid by considerations for this year’s tree plantings on our farm by a visit to a highly experienced tree planting couple in another county.

This year begins with our attention once again on the issues facing our business due to an increasing acceptance of information known as Health Product Declarations. I have previously written about these efforts in this very blog. However, today I feel that some history – both regarding our businesses materials and this movement – is probably useful for me to share with you.

1973 Oil Embargo

I remember the 1973 oil crisis as I was recently both graduated from high school and trying to live independently of the parents who raised me as a newly wed. In October of 1973 OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo that endured until March 1974. OPEC started the embargo in response to American involvement in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Six days after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise military campaign against Israel to regain territories lost in the June 1967 Six-Day War, the US supplied Israel with arms. In response to this, OPEC announced an oil embargo against Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US. In the aftermath, the United States initiated a wide variety of policies to contain their future dependency on imported oil.

Living on minimal income, I remember prices at the grocery store changing weekly and the impact on the price increasing and availability/rationing of gasoline. A focus on conservation and strategies to reduce demand began to have effects on everyday life. In 1974, a national maximum speed limit of 55 mph was imposed through the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. Year-round daylight saving time was implemented from January 6, 1974 to February 23, 1975. In 1976, Congress created the Weatherization Assistance Program to help low-income homeowners and renters reduce their demand for heating and cooling through better insulation. The energy crisis led to a greater interest in renewable energy and spurred research in solar power and wind power.

There has been no going back to less awareness when it comes to aspects of energy use in our country ever since. I believe the history that I have shared is the background to the establishment of The US Green Building Council in 1993 whose mission it has been to make cost-efficient, energy-saving green buildings a more common reality. In March 2000, the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system was unveiled. The program has been very successful in educating the architectural and interior design communities and in creating very energy-efficient buildings. Yet, there is a downside even to such desirable success – Sick Building Syndrome.

SickBuildingSyndromePaper

Governmental health experts admit that there is no specific identifiable cause but a reduction in air flow due to tighter buildings is certainly one explanation. Architects and interior designers sensing some personal responsibility for a higher incidence of malaise related to their success have turned their attention now to making certain that the interiors of buildings become “healthier”. This is the impetus behind Health Product Declarations.

Therefore, the industry now has a Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Yemm & Hart wholeheartedly supports the intentions behind this for transparency, openness and innovation in the product supply chain. The Health Product Declaration is meant to be an impartial tool for the accurate reporting of product contents and each ingredient’s relationship to the bigger picture of human and ecological health. It is an admirable goal.

However, we are finding the application of this to be far from impartial. We are experiencing coercion from OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) who utilize our materials in their product and from the Architectural and Design firms that we have depended upon to specify our product in building construction projects. We feel that while we completely understand and support the reasons for this development, it feels to us as though it will squeeze out all of the initiatives have have developed along with a greater awareness of human impacts upon the planetary environment that have led to the emergence of quality products with post-consumer recycled material content.

Our business has always prided itself on accurately portraying the content of our materials and an admirable transparency and openness regarding them. Yet, there are realities that we have very little influence over. It is well known that there has been conflict between the chemical industry representatives and those developing the latest LEED v4 standards over this issue of transparency. Industry chooses to hide – whether we should be concerned about the health implications or whether the assertions are valid – behind the idea that their formulations include “proprietary” ingredients.

In attempting to honor requests that we are receiving to provide Health Product Declaration information, we have come up against that thick wall of non-disclosure from our color concentrate suppliers. Making jest at a serious issue we wonder if the “proprietary dust” listed in the components is considered safe by the chemical industry and therefore of no concern or does it hide “lead infused radioactive asbestos” dust ? Not that we believe the latter but how is one to know ?

That is precisely the quandary of those who choose the products and materials used in building construction which a significant number of human beings spend a significant amount of their lives enclosed within. We understand but as a very small, niche business we lack the influence to force disclosure by our suppliers who are reputable companies that supply most of the color pigments for most of the plastic objects made in the USA.

HDPE bottle bales

This is an even older, long standing issue we have had to grapple with since the founding of our business. That is the nature of post-consumer feedstocks in general. There can be no HPD for post-consumer recycled resin because these containers represent a variable waste stream with a diversity of unknowns. It is not possible to know what type of liquid or granular material was contained in the original polyethylene vessel. Testing every container before it is recycled would not be a practical solution.

The recycled polyethylene resin that we use has been subjected to cleaning in a hot water washing process. The cleaned resin is then pelletized by liquefying it to temperatures between 250° and 300° F., filtering it and then forming it into pellets. These processes do not necessarily completely nullify the potential for some residual chemicals to remain microscopically present. It is because of this potential type of contamination that Yemm & Hart uses for their Origins product post-consumer milk jugs to avoid potential complications of chemical content residue or plastic additives. Knowing that this recycled resin once contained the nation’s milk supply makes its use feel safer to us.

We see the current effort for building products to have HPDs as a beginning. It is going to take research and legislation to ever achieve complete transparency from industry. Those at the forefront of the HPD movement want a little bit healthier interior environment in a world that has all of us inhaling mercury from coal burning power plants, radon from deteriorating uranium deep below us and an incredible array of chemicals all around us including in the food we eat.

Yemm & Hart will continue to remain informed about the progress of this effort. It is our hope that eventually we will find it easier to comply with requests related to the HPD movement and thus provide to the A&D community an even more transparent disclosure regarding the composition of our materials than we are able to do today. From our beginning, we have done our best to present our material in the most accurate manner possible. Even so, at the moment the general trend has us feeling a bit squeezed out of the market by the best of intentions.

The Little Guy

~ Information Resources

1973 oil crisis – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis

USGBC History – http://www.usgbc.org/about/history

Sick building syndrome – http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/sick-building-syndrome/Pages/introduction.aspx

Health Product Declaration Collaborative – http://hpdcollaborative.org/

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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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Ever Heard of Graphene ?

Graphene Transistors on Flexible Plastic

Graphene Transistors on Flexible Plastic

I had not heard of it either, until a NY Times article posted online April 13, 2014 – “Bend It, Charge It, Dunk It: Graphene, the Material of Tomorrow” – got my own attention. Interest in Graphene goes back at least a decade now. The author, Nick Bilton, says “Graphene is the strongest, thinnest material known to exist. A form of carbon, it can conduct electricity and heat better than anything else. And get ready for this: It is not only the hardest material in the world, but also one of the most pliable.”

Yemm & Hart also has the quality of flexibility in all of our recycled materials, when chosen at the right thickness and used in the proper applications. Flexibility can be a desirable quality. So, Origins at 1/8″ thk can be rolled and curved around forms. Tire Veneer, Flexisurf and Wine Cork in laminate form can also bend to match the shape of a form they are adhered to. The photo below shows a fixture for the Whole Foods Market (St Louis Galleria location) using Tire Veneer at the base for durability against shopping cart collisions and wine cork laminate to convey a message about the purpose of the fixture in the wine department of that store.

Whole Foods Market Cork Collection Fixture

Whole Foods Market
Cork Collection Fixture

While Graphene really is of no financial interest to Yemm & Hart Ltd; my environmentalist’s heart wants to know – is it safe for our environment, to be pursuing this development of the latest and greatest, that science can offer our planet ? It is challenging to show you what this one-atom thick “wonder” material looks like because one needs a powerful electron microscope to see it. The breakthrough is that by adding potassium hydroxide to graphene, these sponge-like porous sheets have increased surface area. Just a gram of the activated graphene, say the researchers, could stretch from a football field’s end zone to its 50-yard line. For a supercapacitor, this increased surface area allows the electrode material to hold more energy.

Graphene viewed through Electron Microscope

Graphene viewed through Electron Microscope

And the ability to store more energy is just what supercapacitors need. While they are great for quick energy fixes and frequent re-charges, they hold just a fraction of the energy batteries can. Batteries release their charge slow and steady over the long haul. But a supercapacitor able to store as much as a battery, take in and release its charge swiftly, and endure being re-charged thousands of times over ? This would be very useful. Electric vehicles could benefit, as well as grids needing to regulate varying power influxes from solar and wind farms. My environmentalist heart becomes interested and attentive.

UofTX Engineers with 3-D Graphene model

UofTX Engineers with 3-D Graphene model

Chinese scientists have created a graphene aerogel, an ultralight material derived from a gel, that is one-seventh the weight of air and one cubic inch of this could be balanced on a single blade of grass. Graphene is said by the American Chemical Society to be 200 times stronger than steel. Potential applications include electronic clothing and computers that can interface with the cells in your body. It is extremely rare to find transparency, conductivity and flexibility in one material. So, this could be big.

Think thinner, faster and cheaper electronics than is currently possible with silicon. Think batteries that can actually be submerged in water without oxidizing. Imagine a cell phone that can stay charged for a week and recharged in just 15 mins. Imagine your cell phone as thin as a piece of paper, that can be folded up and put into your pocket. Graphene can be stretched 20% without losing it’s ability to conduct electrcity. What about a graphene-based condom that is thin, light and impenetrable ? – that has the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Think whole airplanes made out of graphene.

Still, I am concerned about the potential consequences of human-made nano-particles entering the various tiny and unintended crevasses of the environment and human body. I am aware of the concerns and issues related to polyethylene micro-beads in many cosmetics and their impact on waters such as the Great Lakes in the United States. If you are interested in learning more, you can easily google – “microbeads” – and find an abundance of information.

Polyethylene Microbeads

Polyethylene Microbeads

There is no doubt that the nano world is going to have huge impacts on the macro world we move about in. Graphene is a promising material for many things, from timely delivery of medicine to oil extraction. The ultra-thin, heat-transferring material has interested many as a possible substitute for silicon within electronics, as I have just discussed above. And honestly, the disposal issues related to our growing dependence on electronics are huge. So, we ask – if graphene eventually displaces silicon within our gadgets, how eco-friendly will this substance be ?

The production of Graphene raises concerns, as one researcher at Rice University has expressed – “… using potassium chlorate or sodium nitrates … release toxic gases – one of which, chlorine dioxide, is explosive. Manufacturers are always reluctant to go to a large scale with any process that generates explosive intermediates. Many companies have started to make graphene and graphene oxide, and I think they’re going to be very hard pressed to come up with a cheaper procedure that’s this efficient and as safe and environmentally friendly”. Realistically we know that cost and profit are drivers in commercial environments.

The disposal of Graphene is more encouraging – “… research finds the almost ubiquitous Shewanella bacteria capable of breaking down GO into graphene. Stacks of graphene, which are single-atom carbon layers, become graphite, which is considered ecologically benign. According to the researchers, the bacteria from the Shewanella family can also convert iron, chromium, uranium and arsenic compounds into less harmful substances and will be important to future bio-remediation efforts.”

In the old movie, The Graduate, the “word” was said to be plastics. Today, it would appear, that the hottest new word may be “Graphene”. Stay tuned; and watch the future unfold, right before your eyes !!!

Information Resources –

“Wine Cork Tile Slideshow” at YemmHart.com – http://yemmhart.com/materials/winecorktile/slideshow_wct/wct_slideshow.html

“Bend It, Charge It, Dunk It: Graphene, the Material of Tomorrow” by Nick Bilton posted April 13, 2014 in the NY Times Online – http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/bend-it-charge-it-dunk-it-graphene-the-material-of-tomorrow/

“Graphene supes up supercapacitors” by Melissa Mahony posted 05/12/2011 on SmartPlanet.com

“Beat The Micro Bead” campaign at 5Gyres.org – http://5gyres.org/how_to_get_involved/campaigns/

“Graphene goes green” by Melissa Mahony posted 07/26/2010 on SmartPlanet.com – http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/graphene-goes-green/

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

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The Greenest New Year Yet

2013 passing to 2014
It is that time of year, when once again we review the past year and consider what good was accomplished, and if anything was not to our liking and whether or not there is any way we can address that. At the same time, we turn our attention to the new year entering in and wonder what challenges and opportunities it will bring our way.

What are some of the eco-friendly material considerations that make sense today and looking forward ?

Recycled Steel is an excellent choice that saves trees and is more durable in the presence of high winds or earthquakes for building frames. Did you realize that a 2,000 sq ft house uses up to 50 trees in the framing ? The same building framed in recycled steel will use up the remains of approx 6 scrapped cars. In 2011, 2.2 million tons of scrap steel from cans were recycled. In construction and transportation products, there is a high recycling rate – 95% in regards to automobiles, for example. Over the past 50 years, more than 50% of the “new” steel produced has ultimately been recycled. In 2012, the overall steel “recycled” rate was 71%, compared to only 15% recycled back in 1988. Recycled steel requires 75% LESS energy in its manufacture than “virgin” or “new” steel would require, while reducing the solid, enduring load on landfills.

Bales of sorted, recycled metal

Bales of sorted, recycled metal

Another concept that is actually “growing old” (60 yrs) now is the idea of cast-in-place concrete walls that are sandwiched between two layers of insulation material. We have considered that for our own building plans regarding a subterranean shelter and feel that insulating the exterior of a concrete mass does indeed make energy efficient sense but are concerned that using the foam insulation on the interior side wastes the mass that could hold heat and cool over longer periods of time; and therefore, require less energy to bring up to a comfortable temperature.

To my thinking the whole consideration of concrete and insulation is an example of the kind of complex consideration that I really like to bring awareness to in this blog. Construction work with foam blocks filled with concrete is quick and easy in one sense but more time consuming in another. The work can only be accomplished in small bits, that must be allowed to cure, before another bit can be added in. Cold joints between these sections might prove an issue of concern over time.

In traditional concrete forming, it is true that plywood is utilized for forms but those forms are given the longest useful life that can be squeezed out of them. Meaning they are re-used over and over again. Personally, I have some concerns about embedding such inorganic materials as polystyrene into the environment, though that is not a total stopper for me. As to the insulation on the interior, it does complicate good, strong attachments for such additions as weight-bearing shelving. A plus for concrete is that is it is both re-usable and recyclable. There is no easy answer to whether the pluses or the minuses of concrete filled insulating materials determine a decision that remains both personal and still somewhat theoretical.

An exciting development is the plant-based (bamboo, hemp and kelp) polyurethane rigid foam developed by Malama Composites. This “new” material is finding its way into insulation, wind turbine blades, furniture and surfboards. This particular composition of foam has a high moisture and heat resistance, excellent acoustics and protects against mold and pests. It also has a higher R-value than fiberglass or polystyrene.

Fraunhofer Center, Boston

Fraunhofer Center, Boston

A living laboratory for R&D on advanced sustainable energy technologies is the Building Technology Showcase of the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems headquarters in Boston’s fast-growing Innovation District. This was a deep energy retrofit of a 100-yr old bulding completed in 2013 combining cutting-edge design concepts and historic architecture.

Cathedral of the Holy Family Solar Stained Glass Panels

Cathedral of the Holy Family
Solar Stained Glass Panels

Solar energy remains an important development in green building decisions. My favorite is the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon, Canada (the city has an average of 2381 hours of sunshine annually) who had 1,013 silver solar cells hand soldered into their stained glass windows – how’s that for marrying the new to the old ?

Like the sun, the wind is an ever present, non-depletable and sustainable resource for energy. Wind turbines are an increasingly common feature in our planet’s landscape. Another method of utilizing wind is to provide nature ventilations to buildings to increase breathability, an increasing concern with today’s modern, “tight” buildings. One of the most innovative is China’s Pearl River Tower that pushes air through wind turbines to power the building and reduce the natural wind impacts against its 71 stories.

Diagram of Wind Flow at Pearl River Tower

Diagram of Wind Flow
at Pearl River Tower

It is said that fresh, drinkable Water will become our planet’s most scarce resource in the coming years, so the recycling of water becomes ever more important. One way is to collect and recycle precipitation. One such application of rooftop tanks on the Bank of America Tower in New York captures up to 70,000 gallons of rain and filters that for use in cooling the building and flushing it’s toilets.

A lack of connection to Nature can have damaging effects on the human psyche, so more architects and designers build “green spaces” into their projects. These may take the form of living walls, or rooftop vegetation.

Green New 2014 Year

Wishing you the greenest new year yet . . . .

Information Sources –

Fraunhofer Bulding Technology Showcase – http://cse.fraunhofer.org/5cc/

Steel Recycling Institute – http://www.recycle-steel.org/Recycling%20Resources/Steel%20Recycling%20Rates.aspx

EPA Resource Conservation – Steel category – http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/steel.htm

Cathedral of the Holy Family – Solar Stained Glass – http://www.saskatoonrcdiocese.com/cathedral/solar_energy.cfm

Huffington Post – “5 Secrets of Eco-Friendly Buildings” – http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/10/07/5-eco-friendly-buildings_n_3963834.html

“How Stuff Works – 10 Cutting-edge, Energy-efficient Building Materials – http://home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/construction/green/10-cutting-edge-building-materials.htm

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

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