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In this issue:

=> Recycling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
=>  Ask Jim: $1M Fish Filet Mystery
=>  Highlights From the PSI Newsblog

Recycling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

by Dale McGeehon
Exclusive to Polymer Solutions News

Recycling that plastic water bottle is an important start -- but it is a mere drop in reducing the ocean's plastic waste.

"We're recycling the floating plastic in an area of the Pacific Ocean that's twice the size of Texas." At least, that's what some organizations can say about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Other recycling initiatives are using old plastic to make everyday items, such as garments and fabrics, as well as building materials that are as strong as the same items made from aluminum.

Millions of pounds of plastic debris make up the garbage patch in the northern Pacific Ocean. Circular ocean currents bring the detritus -- washed or blown into the water from rivers or ships -- to a relatively calm region, trapping it in a convergence zone. Estimates of the size of the patch vary, depending on the standard being used. Some measure pollution levels -- what separates "normal" from "elevated" levels -- while others measure the sheer physical size. Advocacy organizations have said it is as large as the continental United States, but research from the National Science Foundation suggests the patch might be twice the size of Texas.

Regardless of its true size, much of the debris from the patch washes onto the shores of Hawaii. Instead of seeing it as pollution, the folks at Method, a San Francisco-based supplier of nontoxic, biodegradable cleaning products, see the plastic as great source of recyclable materials for its containers, reports Forbes.

But how does one collect the plastic trash from the beaches? By soliciting help from a lot of like-minded environmentalists.

Crowdsourced Recycling

Method has teamed up with the nonprofit organizations Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and the Kokua Hawaii Foundation. Workers hand-pick more than a ton of plastic from the polluted beaches. In return, Method donates part of the final products' profits back to the organizations.


Method also works with Envision Plastics, a recycler that uses a process that blends a minimum of 10% of ocean plastic with regular household recycled plastic to create high-quality bottles and containers. The recycler claims that a key ingredient in the process, polyolefin resins (for example, HDPE), does not contain BPA, phthalates, heavy metals, or allergens.

Adam Lowry, Method's "chief greenskeeper," says that the recycling process is not cost-effective, but it was not designed to be, reports The New York Times. "We want to create a conversation about recycling plastics," he says. "The real objective is to make the point that we ought to work with the plastics already on the planet."

Method wants to grow its supply of ocean-drifting plastic. It is training other beach cleanup crews in Southern California and on the East Coast to collect and sort the washed-up plastic. The company pays to have the plastic shipped to its manufacturing facilities in the San Francisco Bay area.

"We've created a crowd source model for collecting plastic," Lowry says. He hopes he can increase the amount of ocean material in the plastic recycling stream by educating other companies that it can be done.

"We're removing the excuse for companies to say they can't use recycled plastic because it's not high-quality enough or too expensive," Lowry says. "That's B.S. -- we're doing it with ocean trash."

Ocean Plastic Is PRIME Resource

Similarly, Europeans also are taking plastic out of the oceans to recycle and are using plastic waste to form products that go back into the water. Plastic Recyclate Impression Moulding Engineering (PRIME), a consortium from European countries, is turning mixed polymer waste into materials that are used in flood-barrier panels and other marine construction projects, reports Resource. The consortium is conducting a life-cycle analysis on the panels to see how they compare to traditional flood-barrier panels made from aluminum.

The flood-barrier panels are composed of 80% to 97% mixed plastic waste. The idea for the panels came from a need in the European recycling industry to dispose of its low-grade plastic waste.

"We have seen some very promising results in the manufacture of the panels, and this clearly demonstrates the increasing potential of using mixed polymer waste to create high-end products that can be used in many industries," says Steve Morgan, technical manager at Recoup, a national charity that promotes plastic recycling, and PRIME's dissemination and commercial exploitation manager.

The flood barrier program is just one of PRIME's projects to increase plastic recycling. Like Method, plastic manufacturer Closed Loop Recycling and sustainable cleaning products brand Ecover are creating packaging materials from waste ocean plastic. In another effort, nylon polymer manufacturer Aquafil, sock company Star Sock, and the European Centre for Nature Conservation are recycling abandoned fishing nets into garments and fabrics.

Sustainable and Clean

PRIME's efforts aim to prevent climate change and create more environmental sustainability. "The use of recycled plastics as a raw material can add to companies' environmental credentials, such as carbon footprint reductions, lifecycle analysis benefits, or in developing its corporate social responsibility agenda," says Morgan. "PRIME provides an impressive example of the versatility of used plastics packaging in new products and applications."

For more information on how your business can safely integrate recycled plastics into your supply stream, just Ask Jim.

Source: "How a Company Recycles Ocean Plastic Twice the Size of Texas," Forbes, 3/14/13
Source: "Clean Your Hands and the Pacific," The New York Times, 10/10/12
Source: "Mixed polymer waste used to build flood defenses," Resource, 4/15/13
Image used under Creative Commons license.

Ask Jim: $1M Fish Filet Mystery

by James D. Rancourt, Ph.D., CEO of Polymer Solutions Incorporated
Exclusive to Polymer Solutions News

Ask Jim is a regular feature in Polymer Solutions News where PSI's Founder & CEO, Jim Rancourt, Ph.D., answers puzzlers about polymers submitted by readers. This month's question was submitted by Kate Croy of KSA Interiors in Glen Allen, Virginia, who gets a $25 Starbucks gift certificate. Send your questions to

Kate Cory asks:

"What is one solution that truly amazed you in terms of the capabilities at PSI?"

Jim Rancourt replies:

One of my favorite cases our team has worked on could be summarized as, "In the filet or on the filet?"

Yes, my team of scientists acted as detectives once again. The story begins with a healthy elderly man eating in a cafeteria. As he consumed a fish filet sandwich, he swallowed a large, sharp, flat piece of plastic. This plastic shard became lodged in his chest cavity! This resulted in a half million dollars in surgery to remove this piece of plastic and repair his chest cavity... While I can't say for sure, I'd guess it cost another half million in lawyer fees, too!

Our role was to determine if the plastic was applied to the sandwich by cafeteria workers (i.e., co-mingled with lettuce and tomato slices) or if it was embedded in the fish filet. What I like most about this case is that it had many steps, there were some twists and turns, and it allowed our creative thinking to shine.

The case had two main steps:

  1. Determine the material identification of the shard of plastic
  2. Determine how the shard of plastic would behave during various cooking conditions

The physical evidence was a single shard of plastic that was removed surgically and handled by many people. The plastic had very sharp corners and was an inch by an inch-and-a-half, translucent, with a wavy surface.

Round One: Non-Destructive Testing

To begin this investigation we needed to identify the plastic shard. This was difficult to do because we were only allowed to perform non-destructive testing. We began with a qualitative comparison of the shard to samples of every piece of plastic found in the cafeteria.

Lids, cups, sour cream containers, creamer cups, straws, and other plastics materials arrived at PSI and were all compared qualitatively to the plastic shard in question. Properties such as size, color, thickness, stiffness, and transparency were all compared against the shard of plastic to either rule them in or out as a possible source. Through this qualitative analysis we were unable to locate any materials within the cafeteria that were a likely source of the plastic shard.

Next, we performed non-destructive Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) testing. This led to a preliminary conclusion that the plastic was a polyamide, such as nylon. We suspected that the plastic had absorbed cooking oil. We also suspected this might lead to a false identification because the plastic had been exposed to high-temperature oil.

We approached the courts with this information and were granted permission to begin a quantitative analysis. This required destructive testing. The courts allowed us to remove a 1/8" by 1/8" square from the shard.

Round Two: Destructive Testing

We used FTIR, Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA), and Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) as our main analysis techniques. It was critical that the FTIR and DSC provide consistent results, pointing to the same material identification.

The plastic shard had no melting peak from room temperature to 200°C and a glass transition of 80°C, which means there is no significant level of crystallinity in the polymer. Therefore the polymer could not be nylon. We concluded that the polymer was in fact a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Polyvinylacetate (PVAc) blended with an amide additive. PVC/PVAc is often used for rigid thermoformed packaging. The TGA method verified that the plastic shard contained no fillers.

After determining the material identification of the plastic shard, we purchased materials from a commercial supplier for a series of experiments. The sourced material was a PVC/PVAc used for rigid thermoform packaging. It had a thickness .012", with no melting peak, and a glass transition of 75°C. This material was also optically transparent and had a stiffness that matched the plastic shard. The FTIR spectrum of the sourced material matched the FTIR spectrum for the plastic shard.

We also knew that the material had been exposed to a cooking process because it was slightly discolored, which was indicative of the application of heat. Based on the deposition of the cafeteria worker, we knew the fish filets were typically cooked for 5 minutes at 375°F. PSI purchased a deep fat fryer, several pounds of fish, and conducted a series of experiments.

Round Three: Cooking the Samples

Our goal was to determine the response of the commercially obtained plastic material that was cut to be an exact replica of the shard that the man had swallowed. We had to determine if the appearance of the swallowed shard was more consistent with the shard having been on the fish fillet or contained within the fish filet.

Through the set of experiments in which the plastic was contained within the filet, we proved that the plastic material could survive being cooked within a fish filet at 375°F for 3, 5, or even 7 minutes. The shape of the material did not change significantly; even the sharp corners remained sharp. Of note, the material was transparent prior to cooking but after the cooking process it became translucent. After the cooking process the smooth surface became wavy.

The next set of experiments simulated if the shard had not been in the filet and was merely floating in the cooking oil. Our team proved that the plastic would not survive immersion in cooking oil for 7, 5, or even 3 minutes. The shape changed significantly, the plastic curled, and remained transparent.

Our science-based conclusion: A piece of PVC/PVAc had been embedded in the fish filet. This absolved the cafeteria of any blame and turned the focus onto the fish filet producer. Mystery solved.

Image by Churl Han.

Highlights From the Polymer Solutions Newsblog

The PSI Newsblog features original reporting on breaking news in the fields of plastics analysis, plastics testing, and plastics failure. Here are this month's most popular articles:

  1. Bioengineered Windpipe Implanted Into Toddler
    A two-and-a-half-year-old girl is the youngest person to have received a bioengineered organ -- a windpipe, in this case -- that was made from plastic fibers and human cells.
  2. Polymeric Nanofiber Is Tough and Strong
    We might be able to build tougher airplanes, stronger bridges, and harder body armor, thanks to the research conducted by materials engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  3. A Food Can Help Its Own Packaging
    A European project is leveraging the qualities of chitin and chitosan from shrimp shells to conserve food wrapped in plastic. Then, after its use, the packaging biodegrades.
  4. New Method Gives Rise to Chemical Innovation
    In olefin metathesis, a catalyst will enable a double-bonded atomic group to change places with another, allowing scientists to produce valuable products with organic molecules -- such as pharmaceuticals and coatings -- that were undreamed of a few years ago.
  5. ISO Accreditation Process Is Worth the Effort
    It takes a lot of effort to earn one, but those who have it believe that it's worth it to them and to their clients. We're talking about the ISO 17025 accreditation.

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