Second Chances

I was reading Dr. Seuss before I went to visit my friend Jack in the hospital. He had a terrible strain of pneumonia and nearly died. The staff at the hospital induced a coma for about two weeks. He lived with a respirator and a feeding tube during that time. In total he was in ICU for four weeks and I couldn’t see him. Finally, they moved him into a rehabilitation facility and I was allowed to visit. His first words to me were, “I have a second chance.” I understood immediately what he was saying. I reflected on that as I drove home. Not to wax maudlin on Jack’s second chance, I was reminded of what I’d been reading by Dr. Seuss:

Everyone is just waiting; waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite,
Or a pot to boil, or a better break, or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants, or a wig with curls
Or another chance.

I especially like the notion of another chance. It seems to me we all have another chance. The key is our response. What do we do? How do we behave? How important is that second or third or fourth chance?

In addition to the Dr. Seuss, I just finished a very technical article by Edward Moretti of Baker Environmental, Inc. about VOC Control titled Reduce VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) and HAP (Hazardous Air Pollutant) Emissions. I think Bruce Riddell of Spectrum Label sent it to me. At any rate, Moretti wrote about the need to abate VOC and HAP emissions because of the new provisions of the Clean Air Act, specifically the reduction of emissions in order to meet the new Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards (I know this is a mouthful but nothing compared to the challenge of reading Moretti’s article). I pondered all of this and Jack’s first words to me, and suddenly realized we humans caused all of this – we created the problem as the world industrialized without regard for by-product diversion, and/or liquid and gas emissions. To solve our environmental issues we now spend our time creating incredibly complex and costly organizations like our EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The EPA then creates the MACT standard. To be MACT compliant will cost industry billions. The way I look at it, out of all this chaos, this mad mess, comes opportunity. Out of this chaos comes a second chance.

In my last column I talked about lignum and IBM’s new Titan and Hydro, the development of an ultra-strong polymer. In this column I’d like to introduce bioplastics and in the next I’ll write about bioplastics and biorefinery. I view these as a chance to affect some of the issues we’ve created by fossil energy. Bioplastics are an alternative. Indeed they are a second chance. Let’s hope we get this chance right.

It is interesting that we often need problems to get our creative juices flowing. A good example of this is the development work going on at Coca-Cola. Para-xylene or p-xylene (PX) is used to make polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It is not a friendly chemical and in the last several years PX production has become increasingly controversial. In China, for example, where PET production is massive, there have been demonstrations against new production facilities. Protesters have clashed with police about additional factories that make precursor chemicals like PX. In fact, there are 13 huge p-xylene manufacturing facilities in China, most of which are subsidiaries of Sinopec, China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) and China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), the three major state-owned oil companies making polyester fibers used in soda bottles, food packaging, synthetic fibers for clothing, automotive parts, etc. PX is used in every pound of polyester and at present the Chinese can’t make enough polyester to meet demand because they don’t have enough p-xylene. Hence they want to add PX capacity. It looks like the protests and demonstrations have worked, at least for the time being. (It’s funny how money talks, so we’ll continue to follow this).

In the meantime, the major users of PET are working hard to replace the current petro based para-xylene with renewable para-xylene. This para-xylene will be made from plant based isobutanol and Coca-Cola, for one, will be making what it calls a PlantBottle. Let me tell you the story.

Coca-Cola, Danone, and a few other major consumer goods companies are pushing the development of a resin called PEF. So far the investors have spent over $50 million to help a Dutch research and technology company called Avantium develop a process that will make plastic bottles from 100% plant based feedstocks. PEF, polyethelene furanoate, looks and feels like PET but is actually a material with a different molecular structure. Just like PET, the first ingredient is ethylene glycol, but instead of being combined with terephthalic acid, it is joined with a furanic, creating PEF. Scott Vitters, General Manager of Coke’s PlantBottle project says, “It’s still a polyester but using this process, the material offers some potential advantages in terms of barrier, thermal and mechanical properties.” Also, “it is very compelling from both the environmental and economic perspective.”

At present, and remember this is first generation, ethylene glycol makes up only 30 percent of the molecular weight of the bottle. The remaining 70 percent of the PlantBottle is still made using petroleum based resin. Coke has publicly stated that eventually they will produce and market a PlantBottle made entirely from renewable sources. PEF could help them achieve their goal because Avantium uses carbohydrates from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn as their primary feedstocks. Avantium in their second generation is even looking at agricultural waste or waste paper as feedstocks. Hmmmm!!

With the investment from the big guys and the success of their first generation technology, Avantium is taking a quantum leap and has announced a commercial scale plant that will be operational by 2017. Vitters of Coke notes that while the development phase of their PlantBottle is moving rapidly, they can’t move away from PET too quickly. They have a huge investment in PET infrastructure. “We have a recycling business, and we’ve been a leader in advancing recycled content technologies. We have a shared interest in ensuring the PET market is protected, given the investments we’ve made.”

What is really gratifying to me is the focus in this development project on end of life (second chance, right!). Initial recycling tests have focused on whether PEF can be recycled back into PEF bottles or whether PEF bottles can be used in clothing, carpet, or other polyester markets. Early results have shown good performance in all applications. Remember, this is with 30% PEF.

It does remain unclear how much PEF we can put into the PET recycle stream. Some industry specialists are suggesting 5% limits, but the development and evaluation work continues. In other words, the jury is out. Maybe second chance becomes third chance.

I think these folks have the right approach. Replacing fossil based technology is tricky. Technology and cost evaluations are critical. And, I’m sure, there will be second and third and maybe even fourth generation changes. But this second chance is being developed with the right approach: design for end of life.

Most of you are aware of the situation in Canada, where distributors are being charged a “stewardship tax” for any kind of package that goes to the landfill. The distributors are companies like WalMart, Safeway, Loblaws, etc. Not small players. In 2012, the Canadian government collected over $300 million in stewardship taxes. The tax covered, among other non-recyclables, packages, PET thermoform containers with pressure sensitive labels. PSA labels on PET thermoforms are incompatible with PET recycling and demonstrate the pitfalls of trying to solve problems after the fact. It makes no difference, in my view, whether the incompatibility is caused by adhesive or ink or density difference between substrates. Work is ongoing in this regard and eventually we’ll solve the problem. My point is we need to design for end of life. You see, that’s what a second chance is all about. Getting it right the second time. Jack figured it out. Can we?

Another Letter from the Earth