Search This Blog

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Plastics: a double-edged sword

Depending on the definition used, plastics were discovered in 1284 with the first recorded use of horn and tortoiseshell as the predominant early natural plastic or as late as 1907 when Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic.

1955 Life Magazine cover
WWII served as a catalyst for the burst of modern-day plastic-product development and manufacturing. Per the Science History Institute (SHI) article, The History and Future of Plastics, during World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%. The August 1955 Life magazine article Throwaway Living essentially announced the inauguration of single-use plastic for common household use.

Thus, in less than seventy years, humans managed to infiltrate the Earth with microplastics and nanoplastics from discarded single-use and durable products in literally every nook and cranny. Recent research documented microplastics and nanoplastics in sites ranging from the arctic-snow caps to the depths of the oceans and everywhere in between.

Plastic: what is it?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word plastic comes from Latin plasticus, from Greek plastikos "able to be molded, pertaining to molding, fit for molding" or simply pliable and easily shaped. It seems plastic as an adjective was first defined in the 1630's.

Over the centuries, the word plastic evolved into many meanings including slang terms such as a fake and/or arrogant person. For purposes of this article, plastic is defined as a material category of natural and synthetic polymers, a substance consisting of a large number of similar linked monomers (small molecules). Common natural polymers include polypeptide-protein molecules made from various amino-acid monomer units and cellulose, the material responsible for plant-cell walls.

Bakelite molecular structure
photo: Quora, What is the structure of bakelite
Per the PlasticsEurope How Plastics are Made page, plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil. A complex mixture of thousands of compounds, crude oil needs to be processed before it can be used. Synthetic plastic polymers may be classified into two broad categories:
  • Thermoplastics (which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling).
  • Thermosets (which never soften once they have been moulded).
Generally, plastics allow for cost-effective manufacturing of products that are durable and strong for their weight. In addition, plastic materials are electrically and thermally insulative, and resistant to shock, corrosion, chemicals, and water.

Some of the same properties that make plastic a valuable construction and packaging material contribute to its environmental devastation. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Marine Debris Program:
Plastics will degrade into small pieces until you can’t see them anymore (so small you’d need a microscope or better!). But, do plastics fully go away? Full degradation into carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic molecules is called mineralization (Andrady 2003). Most commonly used plastics do not mineralize (or go away) in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. We call these pieces “microplastics” if they are less than 5mm long. The rate of degradation depends on chemical composition, molecular weight, additives, environmental conditions, and other factors (Singh and Sharma 2008).
Plastic: history(1)
When using an original definition of plastic, simply pliable and easily shaped, tree saps provide natural plastic material such as amber, rubber and gutta-percha, the coagulated latex of certain Malaysian trees. According to the SHI article, Celluloid: The Eternal Substitute, even glass, moldable at high temperatures, is a natural plastic.

Celluloid (2)
In 1869 renowned American inventor John Wesley Hyatt discovered that cellulose derived from cotton fiber treated with camphor created a plastic that could imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory; camphor is a crystalline compound usually derived from the wood and bark of the Asian camphor laurel Thus, Hyatt is credited with discovering celluloid, the first synthetic plastic polymer.

Celluloid doll
Photo from Wikipedia
Hyatt was inspired by an 1863 advertisement via a New York firm offering $10,000 for the discovery of a replacement material for ivory. Due to billiards growing popularity, the limited supply of quality ivory to make the billiard balls was a concern. Ivory was obtained through the slaughter of wild African elephants.

Along with his brother, Hyatt formed the Celluloid Manufacturing Company that produced celluloid dental plates for false teeth. Hyatt developed blow molding, a process for making hollow items from celluloid tubes, that lead to the mass production of inexpensive toys and ornaments. Around the same time, artisans used celluloid to craft hair combs and eyeglass frames that resembled ivory, tortoiseshell, coral and semi-precious stones.

CHALLENGE: celluloid is highly flammable! Though there are urban legends of exploding combs and buttons, factory fires were the prime hazard of celluloid manufacturing and use. 

Celluloid's primary traits - cheapness, flexibility, and transparency - transformed photography in still and motion-picture realms. Together with chemist Henry Reichenbach, George Eastman filed patents in 1889 for their nitrocellulose film (simply called “nitrate film”) that allowed photographers to develop and print their own film. Additionally, nitrate film made motion pictures possible.

Nitrate film
photo  Preservation Self-Assessment Program
By 1928 the cinema industry was thriving and transformed popular entertainment. Until 1950, movies were shot on nitrate film while hand-painted sheets brought Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to life when filmed in sequence.

Nitrate film was highly flammable and could ignite by the heat generated while passing through a projector's film gate. There were incidents of audience deaths by flames, smoke, or resulting stampedes.

Additionally, nitrate film was unstable and subject to decomposition. Thus, a good portion of the early movies on nitrate film are lost forever due to studio fires, auto-ignited fires in storage, and decomposition.

Beyond antique-collector items such as combs, ornaments, and toys, celluloid retains one practical use in current times as ping pong balls, which are hollow celluloid balls.

Modern Plastic Development
The first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. Fully synthetic plastic has no molecules that exist in nature. Bakelite was created to replace shellac, a natural electrical insulator, during the "electrifying" of  the Western world. 

Beyond an excellent insulator, Bakelite is durable, non-flammable, heat resistant, and, unlike celluloid, ideally suited for mechanical mass production. Living up to plastic's definition, Bakelite may be shaped and molded into almost anything. Thus, the entry into modern-day plastic unfolded.

WWII nylon parachute
Photo: Army Logistics University
Plastic played a significant role in WWII-military success and victory. The multitude of uses were extensive. Nylon, invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935 as a synthetic silk, played a valuable role in parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, and more. Light weight and shatter-resistant, Poly(methyl methacrylate), commonly called Plexiglas, replaced glass in aircraft windows. The wide array of plastic use flourished during WWII and, as previously mentioned, plastic production in the U.S. increased 300%.

Greenhouse and hydroponic-farming were industry segments that benefited by the development of inexpensive, durable and lightweight plastics. The RiA Magazine article, A Hydroponic-Agriculture Renaissance, documents how the ancient agriculture practice was reinvented via plastic-material availability.

According to author Susan Freinkel in her 2011 Plastics: A Toxic Love Story, “In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.

While early plastic usage related to the manufacturing of durable goods, in the 1950's single-use plastic packaging and products were introduced; thus, the onset of plastic pollution.

Consumer-Product Development and Environmental Impact
HDPE (High Density Polyethylene, also known as #2 plastic) was invented in 1953 by Karl Ziegler and Erhard Holzkamp and two years later the first HDPE pipe was produced. A decade later in 1963 Ziegler won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Later HDPE became the common packaging material for milk jugs, bleach, detergents, shampoo, motor oil and many other household items.

First patented in Sweden in 1962 and later in the United States in 1965, the T-shirt plastic bag (formally "bag with handle of weldable plastic material") was invented by Sten Gustaf Thulin with patents obtained by Cellopast, a Sweden-based packing company. 

Plastic T-shirt bags in use
Photo source: Politico
In the late 1970's, the T-shirt plastic bag was introduced to the grocery industry as a way to reduce trees cut down for paper bags. By 1985, 75% of the grocery stores offered plastic bags yet they only held a 25% market share. A decade later plastic bags captured 80% of the market. Plastic-grocery bags are made from HDPE or LDPE (LowDensity Polyethylene, also known as #4 plastic).

Beverage containers as well as food and other single-use packaging are often made from PET (Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as #1 plastic), a form of polyester. In 1973, the now common PET-beverage container was patented with the first bottles recycled in 1977.

According to Statista, by 2016 approximately 485 billion PET bottles were produced annually, increasing to an estimated 583.3 billion produced in 2021. The Resource Recycling November 2018 article PET bottle recycling rate rises states PET recycling rates increased to 29.2% in the past year. Thus, in theory, 70.8% of the 2016 PET bottles manufactured, or 343 billion bottles, from the highly recyclable, valuable material were landfill-destined or simply disposed of in the environment. Since the recycling rate increased in 2018, the 343-billion bottles in 2016 is a conservative estimate.

In the 1960's manufacturing infrastructure was established to mass produce plastic-drinking straws to replace the paper straws commonly used. According to One More Generation's One Less Straw Pledge Campaign the U.S. currently uses 500,000,000 plastic straws daily, enough straws to wrap around the earth's circumference 2.5 times a day.

Plastic-fishing debris pollution
found on a remote Cozumel beach
Plastic-fishing nets are commonly made from highly recyclable polyethylene and nylon. A 2018 Scientific Reports-published research project substantiates 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consists of plastic-fishing nets, known as ghost nets; CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Boyon Slat and his team of scientists submitted the project report to Scientific Reports. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the globe's largest conglomeration of floating trash first discovered by Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita Captain Charles Moore in 1997.

In its many forms plastics proceeded to seep into almost every aspect of modern society. The high-tech revolution brought personal computers, cell phones, digital cameras, and other electronic equipment to the average consumer: plastics were integral to developing user-friendly, cost-effective devices. A plastic-free life is nearly impossible within modern society.

Plastics: from macro to micro to nano plastics
At the 2016 National Zero Waste Conference, Elemental Impact (Ei) hosted a popular panel, The Macro Cost of Micro Contamination, where Lia Colabella of 5 Gyres and Ei Partner Rick Lombardo with NaturTec co-presented to a standing-room-only crowd.

In her MORE OCEAN, Less Plastic presentation, Colabella included the following chilling facts:

The amount of plastic that enters the ocean each year.

The estimated number of pieces of plastic floating on the ocean surface.

Once in our waterways, plastics act as sponges, soaking up all the chemicals – like PCB, DDT – that don’t mix with salt water.

Toxic-laden plastics look super tasty to fish. And we all know fish look tasty to us.

Plastic fragments in fish
Photo courtesy of 5 Gyres
Lombardo's powerful Compostable Plastics vs. Traditional Plastics session educated on a similar dilemma building within our soils. To help understand the origins of microplastic contamination, Rick educated on fragmentation, biodegradability and compostability as follows:

Fragmentation – first step in the biodegradation process, in which organic matter is broken down into microscopic fragments.

Biodegradability – complete microbial assimilation of the fragmented product as a food source by the soil microorganisms.

Compostability – complete assimilation within 180 days in an industrial compost environment.

Note the difference between biodegradability and compostibility is TIME. By definition, compostable material decomposes within 180 days while bio-degradation may take as long as millions of years.

Due to the fragmentation process, ocean-plastic pollution is now referred to as plastic smog. Clean-up is challenging to impossible due to the microscopic size of the plastic. Aquatic life consumes the fragmented plastic; larger pieces remain within the digestive tract and smaller ones may integrate within the flesh. Thus, plastic enters the human-food system!

Plastic smog in ocean
Photo: Kobaken, Creative Commons
Microplastics are defined as plastic fragments or particles smaller than 5.0 mm in size. According to ScienceDirect's abstract,
Current opinion: What is a nanoplastic?, recently discovered nanoplastics are defined as particles unintentionally produced (i.e. from the degradation and the manufacturing of the plastic objects) and presenting a colloidal(4) behavior, within the size range from 1 to 1000 nm.

Microplastic and nanoplastic research is a new frontier as scientists grapple to understand their implications and impact of ecosystems, animal organs and flesh, and plant roots, cell walls and fiber. For animals, current hypotheses are microplastics generally remain trapped in the gastrointestinal tract while nanoplastics may enter flesh, the bloodstream and even cell walls.

Dr Anne Marie Mahon at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, expresses her concerns, “I would be more concerned about nanoplastics (less than 0.001 mm) when it comes to human health. Microplastics will not enter a cell, but nanoplastics are small enough to cross into cells and permeate the body.”

Plastics: in the ocean
The BBC NEWS article, Early ocean plastic litter traced to the 1960's, confirms single-use plastic made its way to the oceans soon after its introduction as a commonly used item.

Additional findings from a continuous plankton recorders (CPRs) study found a plastic-fishing line from 1957; the study confirmed ocean-plastic pollution increased steadily and significantly since the 1990's. In the study, a plastic bag found off the coast of Ireland was dated to a 1965 origin, only three years after the T-shirt bag was patented in Sweden.

Five ocean gyres
Photo courtesy of NOAA
Since Captain Moore's discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997, according to NOAA, scientists identified five major gyres: the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres, the North and South Atlantic Subtropical Gyres, and the Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre. Though its traditional meaning refers simply to large, rotating ocean currents, gyre evolved to commonly mean collections of plastic waste and other debris found in higher concentrations in certain parts of the ocean.

Due to plastic fragmentation into microplastic and further into nanoplastics, the depths of the ocean are now infiltrated with plastics ingested by marine organisms. The February 2019 Microplastics and synthetic particles ingested by deep-sea amphipods in six of the deepest marine ecosystems on Earth research article published by The Royal Society Publishing documents research in six deep ocean trenches from around the Pacific Rim (Japan, Izu-Bonin, Mariana, Kermadec, New Hebrides and the Peru-Chile trenches), at depths ranging from 7,000 m to 10,890 m.

In conclusion, the article provides the following summary:
The results of this study demonstrate that man-made fibres including microplastics are ingested by lysianassoid amphipods at the deepest location of all the Earth's oceans. Microplastic ingestion occurred in all trenches, indicating they are bioavailable within hadal environments.(3)
Three species of deep-sea amphipods (6)
We hypothesize that the physical impacts known in shallower ecosystems as a result of microplastic ingestion are likely to occur within hadal populations. Plastics are being ingested, culminating in bioavailability in an ecosystem inhabited by species we poorly understand, cannot observe experimentally and have failed to obtain baseline data for prior to contamination.
This study reports the deepest record of microplastic ingestion, indicating it is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by plastic pollution.
Plastic pollution is prevalent beyond oceans and in the Earth's waterways. The December 2015 Science Daily article, Microplastics: Rhine one of the most polluted rivers worldwide, documents the prolific plastic pollution in the German river from Basel and Rotterdam. As reported in the February 2019 Knox News article, Microplastics hit home: Tennessee River among the most plastic polluted in the world, the Tennessee River joins the Rhine River as a top-ranked most polluted river:
Dr. Andreas Fath, who spent 34 days last summer swimming the 652 miles of the Tennessee River from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky, and his team analyzed three samples of the 12 they collected and found close to 18,000 microplastic particles per cubic meter of water in the Tennessee River.
Research on the quantity, type, and impact of microplastics and nanoplastics in the oceans and waterways is well underway with chilling results.

Plastics: in drinking water
According to a 2017, ten-month, six-continent investigative report by Orb Media, INVISIBLES: The Plastics Inside Us, worldwide 83% of the tap-water samples contained plastic fibers; the United States was at 94% and every other country tested was above 70%.

Though not scientifically proven, the Orb Media report listed the following daily activities that are likely sources of microplastics and nanoplastics in drinking water worldwide:
Clothing fibers are the major source
of microplastic pollution in the
San Francisco Bay.
Article: Microfibers: How the Tiny Threads
in Our Clothes Are Polluting the Ba

Photo: Sherri Mason/SUNY Fredonia
  • Washing synthetic fabrics - polyester, nylon, acrylic, and especially fleece fabrics release microfibers in washing machine cycles; in a study by Patagonia, a fleece garment sheds 250,000 microplastic fibers in one washing cycle. 
  • Tire dust - styrene butadiene rubber-tire dust from normal travel along roads flows into sewer systems, water-treatment plants and eventually into drinking water. Per the Orb Media study, 20 grams of tire dust is generated for 100 kilometers driven. Thus, in Norway, a kilogram of tire dust is produced each year for every member of their population.
  • Paints - dust from road markings, ship paint, and house paint contribute to 10% of the microplastics in the ocean. Studies show that paint dust covers the ocean surface. 
  • Secondary Plastics - essentially plastic trash discarded into the environment, which fragments into microplastics and nanoplastics.
  • Airborne synthetic fibers - similar to a cat shedding, human movement releases micro fibers from synthetic clothing into the atmosphere. A 2015 study in Paris estimated that between three and ten tons of airborne micro fibers fall onto the city's surface each year.
  • Microbeads - though now banned in the U.S. and Canada, it is estimated that more than 8 trillion microbeads polluted U.S. waterways in 2015 alone.
With astounding findings from reports such as INVISIBLES: The Plastics Inside Us, organizations like the World Health Organization are addressing Microplastics in drinking water.

Plastics: in the atmosphere
In an August 2019 Science Advances research article, White and wonderful? Microplastics prevail in snow from the Alps to the Arctic, Dr. Melanie Bergmann and her team of German and Swiss research scientists discovered that microplastics prevail in the snow sampled from one of the last pristine environments in the world. The researchers collected snow samples from the Svalbard islands, located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole

Arctic-snow samples
Photo courtesy of the referenced
research project
Shocked, the scientists found more than 10,000 plastic particles per liter in the "pristine" snow. In addition to plastics, rubber, varnish, paint and possibly synthetic fibres particles were found in the snow.

As quoted in the BBC News article, Plastic particles falling out of sky with snow in Arctic, Dr. Bergmann explains, "We expected to find some contamination but to find this many microplastics was a real shock. It's readily apparent that the majority of the microplastic in the snow comes from the air."

In a May 2019 research project published in Nature GeoScience, Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment, a British-French research team found microplastics in the remote French Pyrenees.

Microplastics and other micro debris from populated areas are carried by atmospheric currents and deposited in the thought-to-be pristine environment via snow fall. It is likely particle pollution is in the air humans and wildlife breath on a minute-by-minute basis.

Additional research on the ramifications of microplastics in the atmosphere is most certainly forthcoming.

Plastics: in the soils
With research validating microplastics in our waterways, oceans, drinking water, and atmosphere, it is reasonable to assume microplastics, and most likely nanoplastics, are prevalent in the Earth's soils. Yet to date there is minimal discussion let alone research on the impact of plastics to the soil ecosystem and plant roots and fiber.

TSSI introduction meeting at the
Jimmy Carter Center
Photo credit: Jim Ries, OMG President
Author Jon Daly substantiates how plastics find their way into agricultural soils through recycled wastewater and rubbish in the January 2019 ABC News article, Scientists say microplastics are all over farmlands, but we're ignoring the problem. Within the rubbish is a significant amount of single-use food and beverage packaging; the vast majority of the packaging is either plastic-coated or 100% plastic. Plastic straws are a prevalent contributor to microplastics in the waterways, oceans, and soils.

In March 2019 Ei took first “easy win” steps to addressing microplastics and nanoplastics in our waterways, oceans, soils, and the human-food chain with the Three-Step Straw Initiative (TSSI) announcement. TSSI Partner Green Planet Straws is the financial catalyst for Ei's important work. The RiA Magazine article, Three Steps to Straw Integrity announces the TSSI.

The TSSI is in partnership with One More Generation's (OMG) well established One Less Straw pledge program. The “kids” who started OMG are amazing – they presented at the United Nations and were keynote speakers during the #G7 Ocean Summit session in Halifax. In early 2019 OMG received the Energy Globe Award for the Youth category from over 6000-project entries from more than 178 countries.

Tradd Cotter with Laura Turner Seydel
at the Ei Exploration 
Over the summer Ei Founder Holly Elmore met with soil-research scientists at several prominent university departments of agriculture. At the meetings Holly garnered interest in exploring research projects on the impact of microplastics and nanoplastics in the soil ecosystem. Holly suggested two potential areas of research:
  1. Nanoplastic impact on the soil ecosystem including the various microbial communities, the plethora of soil life, and the potential segue into plant fiber.
  2. Potential use of fungus that feeds off of plastic to "clean-up" the plastic pollution in the soils. (5)
Concern: plastics often contain additives; when plastic is consumed (broken down into its elements) by the fungus, additives are in a "freed" state and may prove poisonous to soil life. Remember a fully synthetic polymer contains no molecules found in nature. Thus, there is concern plastics broken down to their elemental state may actually be more harmful due to additives.

Ei maintains a close relationship with renowned fungi scientist Tradd Cotter, Mushroom Mountain owner, and intends to bring Cotter into the research loop at the appropriate time. In October 2018, Ei hosted the empowering Ei Exploration of Fungi, Soil Health, and World Hunger, where Cotter welcomed the impressive group to Mushroom Mountain for a fascinating education session and facility tour.

Seeds for research related to plastic in the soils were planted during the Ei Exploration.

Plastics: a double-edged sword
Plastics in its myriad of forms propelled humanity beyond the Industrial Age and into the Information Age (also known as the Computer Age, Digital Age, or New Media Age) where the economy is based on information technology. Along with silicon, plastics are integral to the high-tech equipment and devices at the foundation of the Information Age.

Within the Information Age, durable as well as single-use plastic products are integrated within modern day culture. The gamut of industries supporting humanity rely upon plastics for their manufacturing, administrative functions, product packaging and transportation, and ultimate consumer use.

Yet humans essentially trashed the planet with prolific plastic pollution that now inhabits every nook and cranny of the Earth. As previously explained, plastic pollution is predominant from the arctic snow caps to the depths of the oceans and everywhere in between. Scientists are merely beginning to study the health ramifications of humans, animals, plants and microbial life literally breathing, eating and drinking plastics in its macro, micro and nano forms.

In empowering leadership roles, global non-profit organizations are working to bring the Earth back to a healthy, balanced state. The non-profits are educating on the current scenario, working to stop plastic pollution, creating new manufacturing paradigms, and much more. Below are several examples:

  • 5 Gyres continues to educate on the magnitude of plastic pollution in our oceans and beyond. 
  • The Plastic Pollution Coalition works diligently to stop the deluge of plastic pollution with campaigns to eradicate single-use plastic consumption.
  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastic Economy intends to transform manufacturing design and protocol via two new industry standards: 1> products are made of 100% post-consumer recycled materials and 2> products are designed for reuse with company-sponsored programs making reuse simple, easy, and convenient for the consumer.
Plastics gifted humanity with an evolution of manufacturing, farming and information technology. Life on planet Earth is much more comfortable and abundant from the benefit of these innovations. 

Yet plastic pollution and its devastating ramifications threaten humanity's ability to continue as the Earth's dominant species. The seemingly magical gift of plastic came with a double-edged sword filled with the potential to destroy life as it is currently known on Earth. Negligent human action is responsible for a majority of the plastic pollution choking the Earth's life force.

It is time to shift perspectives from human-focused to life-focused and let the Earth show us how to heal the damage inflicted. Answers will come to those who live and take action from the heart.

Resources | Definitions:
(1) The Science History Institute article, The History and Future of Plastics, served as a primary resource for the Plastic: history section.
(2) The Science History Institute article, Celluloid: The Eternal Substitute, served as the primary resource for the Celluloid subsection.
(3) Hadal environments refer to the deepest depths of the oceans within oceanic trenches. The name is derived from Greek mythology where Hades is the Underworld.
(4) Colloidal refers to items of a small size that are floating in a medium of one of three substances: a solid, a liquid, or a gas. Colloidal particles can be suspended in a substance just like their own make-up or a different substance with the exception of gases. Source:
(5) The June 2017 Science Direct research paper Biodegradation of polyester polyurethane by Aspergillus tubingensis documents laboratory experiments with the plastic-feeding fungus.
(6) The amphipod image is courtesy of the Microplastics and synthetic particles ingested by deep-sea amphipods in six of the deepest marine ecosystems on Earth research article published by The Royal Society Publishing.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Hydroponic-Agriculture Renaissance

Center-to-Plate Garden
Orange County Convention Center
In the 1950's the use of plastic proliferated throughout a wide array of industries. New technologies using plastic catapulted society into the high-tech modern world of today. Greenhouses along with hydroponic farming benefited from the new technologies and lighter weight, cost-effective plastic construction material.

According to The Hydroponics Planet The History of Hydroponics article, the use of low-cost plastic as a staple construction material allowed for the innovation of drip systems, improved irrigation, filters, water reservoirs, among other inventions. Thus, modern hydroponic farming emerged as a result of the newly accessible and low-cost plastic materials.

... and a hydroponic-agriculture renaissance ensued in commercial locations previously inaccessible to farms.

Hydroponics: history(1)
Derived from the Greek words hydro (water) and ponos (labor), hydroponics simply is a gardening method that does not use soil. William Gericke, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley coined the term in the 1920's.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
source: Ancient History Encyclopedia
Though modern hydroponics emerged in the 1920's, hydroponic gardens were prominent in several ancient cultures. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, built by  King Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) along the East bank of the Euphrates River used hydroponic principles. From several hundred years BC, Egyptian hieroglyphics portray plants growing without soil along the Nile River.

During the Aztec reign in Mexico, natives constructed chinampas, rafts built with reeds and strong roots, and loaded them with rich sediment from nearby shallow lake waters. Plants thrived on the rafts; roots absorbed minerals from the sediment and worked through the raft to the lake below for consistent food and hydration. In its prime, the chinampas fed a community of 200,000 inhabitants. Chinampas may serve as the earliest example of aquaponics, a combination of aquaculture (practice of raising aquatic animals) and hydroponics in a symbiotic environment.

In the 1500's, Leonardo de Vince wrote his profound deduction that is the foundation of modern hydroponics:
“To develop, plants need mineral elements that they absorb from the soil by means of water. Without water, the plants do not survive, even if the soil has the mineral elements they need.
Water is as if it were the soul of plants, as minerals are as if they were the soul of soil. If we could transmit to the soul of plants [the water], the strength of the soul of soil [the minerals], perhaps we would not need it [the soil] to make plants survive and multiply.
I believe that, in a future that does not belong to me, that [this] will be possible. So, it is advisable to add fertiliser and irrigate periodically the lands for us to get a healthy and productive plantation.”
Credited as the catalyst for hydroponics research and writing, Sir Frances Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum, a book on growing plants in an environment without soil, published after his death in 1627. Subsequently, hydroponics research grew in popularity.

Often referred to as the "Father of Hydroponics," John Woodward, an English naturalist, antiquarian and geologist, published his experiments on growing mint without soil in 1699. As the first documented hydroponics, Woodward's experiments mark the inaugural step in the creation of modern hydroponics.

In the mid-1850's, French chemist Jean Baptiste Boussingault discovered that plants do not absorb atmospheric nitrogen; the roots derive nitrogen from mineral-rich water in the soil. Thus, Jean Baptiste proposed what is now referred to as the Nitrogen Cycle, how the element circulates between the atmosphere, terrestrial, and marine realms.

Previously mentioned William Gericke, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, coined the terms aquaculture and hydroponics. Additionally, in the 1920's Gericke famously grew hydroponic-tomato plants twenty-five feet tall. While Woodward is known as the "Father of Hydroponics," Gericke is known as the "Father Modern Hydroponics" and published the renowned The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening.

Wake Island hydroponics
Source: HydroponicAdvantage
During World War II, hydroponics was used extensively to feed the troops in the Pacific and South Atlantic. The first commercial hydroponics facility was built on Wake Island, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean used for global-flight refueling. Produce grown in the hydroponics facility was used to feed passengers during the long trans-Pacific flights.

By the 1960's the first specific hydroponic system, Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), was developed in England by Allan Cooper. NFT systems use a growing tray placed at an angle with channels for the plant roots. A water-based nutrient solution constantly flows over the roots, providing nutrition and aeration. Water not absorbed by the roots is recycled back through the system with no water waste.

In the 1990's NASA developed aeroponics to grow plants in zero gravity during space missions. Rather than water flowing over the roots, a nutrient solution is sprayed onto the roots. Thus, NASA research was the foundation for new patented aeroponic systems. Aeroponics is considered a type of hydroponics.

Hydroponics: advantages
Though hydroponic farming has many strong advantages, one of the most impressive characteristics is the water-savings over traditional soil-based farming. According to a University of Arizona Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science 2011 article:
A hydroponic lettuce system could use only 10 percent of the water needed compared to field-grown lettuce. Arizona uses about 70 percent of its water for agriculture. Theoretically, about 90 percent of all that water could be saved if every farm converted to hydroponics
Creative hydroponics design
at the Center-to-Plate garden
Space-saving is another practical attribute of hydroponic systems. Since water is the nutrient-delivery vehicle with no soil buffering, plants are easily placed closely together and may be vertically stacked. Thus, with creative design hydroponic systems can fit into a facility's nooks & crannies. For commercial installations, the close plant proximity produces larger harvests than with their soil-based counterparts.

Additionally, in hydroponic systems, crops mature from seeds to harvest in a shorter time frame. According to the Epic Gardening article, 7 reasons hydroponics wins, a head of lettuce grows from seedling to harvest in around a month in hydroponics compared to two months in soil.

Eliminating the use of "cides" (insecticides, pesticides and herbicides) is a powerful environmental advantage for enclosed hydroponic farming. By controlling the growing environment, weeds, insect pests and other soil-borne diseases are not a factor for hydroponically grown crops and the use of "cides" is not applicable.

Per The Hydroponic Planet article, is hydroponic food nutritious?, food safety is another advantage inherent with hydroponic farming:
By removing the soil from the equation, as well as manure-based fertilizer, hydroponic growing greatly reduces the risk of contaminated food making it to the supermarket. The reduced risk of contamination is one of hydroponics great health advantages over traditionally grown food.
Tomatillo blossom
Center-to-Plate garden
Another advantage of indoor systems is a year-round growing season and the ability to grow "out-of-season" crops.

Since many hydroponic farms grow food for local destinations, the food is fresher due to shorter transportation times and arrives with a lower carbon footprint. The current hydroponic-agriculture renaissance encompasses strong potential to increase food access in urban neighborhoods, especially those within food deserts.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, berries (e.g. strawberries, blueberries), leafy vegetables (e.g. lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, spinach), peppers, herbs, and spring onions grow well in hydroponic systems and represent the most common crops.

Hydroponics: challenges
Installing a hydroponics system requires an upfront capital investment. Additionally, ongoing constant monitoring by a manager trained in the system's checks and balances is necessary to maintain healthy operations.

Molly Crouch checks
the Center-to-Plate garden
As they run on electricity, hydroponic farms are vulnerable to power outages and back-up generators are recommended. If a power outage extends beyond the generator's capabilities, the entire remaining crop is lost.

Though free from weeds, insects and soil-born illnesses, indoor systems are vulnerable to water-borne microorganisms that may infest the system. Pythium (water mold) root rot is a common water-borne disease in hydroponic farming and can be difficult to control once plants are infected. According to the Urban Ag News article, Pythium root rot on hydroponically grown basil and spinach, careful attention to growing practices and sanitation procedures can limit this disease to an occasional annoyance rather than an annihilating nemesis.

When disease strikes a hydroponics farm, the entire crop is infected due to the circulating water feed and potentially lost, depending on the disease type and intensity.

Though overall hydroponic farming is void of fertilizers and the "cides," few farms pursue organic certification. Organic nutrient solutions often clump and clog the pumps; thus, the system requires constant monitoring to ensure consistent water flow. The risk of clogged pumps and losing an entire crop often does not justify the benefits of organic certification.

Despite the stated challenges, hydroponic farming is common place for local food production in a variety of environments, ranging from regenerative farms to public-school systems to convention centers. The following sections depict successful hydroponic operations discovered during Elemental Impact (Ei) Founder Holly Elmore's travels.

Hickory Grove Farm | KSU Field Station(2)
HGF Hydroponics Lab
In 2013 the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) leased a 26-acre tract of land to Kennesaw State University (KSU) for farm use. Formally, the site was the GDOT cement-mixing site for nearby I-75 construction. Though not toxic, the Hickory Grove Farm (HGF) soil was severely compacted and devoid of necessary minerals to sustain a healthy soil ecosystem. In addition, stormwater flowed off the property, rather than hydrate the "dead soil."

Due to the deteriorated state of the soil, one of the first HGF structures built was the Hydroponics Lab, which housed a state-of-the-art vertical hydroponic system. With each plant watered individually, the periodic dry time emulated nature and prevented root rot often prevalent in hydroponic systems. Within the lab, the tomato, cucumber, and various peppers-crop yields were impressive. Planting was timed to generate crops within the KSU-class rhythm.

Lush lettuce in the
Hydroponics Lab
Originally, HGF served as as a laboratory for The Michael A. Leven School of Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality (CSH) with an active class schedule. To prepare the students with the necessary skills to evolve into valuable culinary and hospitality-industry employees, the CSH required 400 hours of work experience and 200 volunteer hours for program graduation. Thus, HGF was the recipient of a significant number of student-volunteer hours for farm work.

In October 2017, KSU announced the CSH would be phased out by spring of 2021 and was no longer accepting new students. Thus, HGF lost their steady stream of student-volunteer hours and the farm-labor budget, other than HGF Farm Manager Michael Blackwell. It was time to step back and evolve the farm's strategic-operations plan.

With limited farm labor, Blackwell immediately assessed how he could maintain crop production. A top priority was replacing the the original vertical-hydroponics system with a table-top system to focus on lettuce and reduce required labor. With the Hydroponics Lab's new system, lettuce grows from seeds to ready-for-harvest in six weeks, broken down into three, two-week stages.

HGF can easily produce 400 pounds of lettuce per week, more than KSU Dining Services uses, even when at  full capacity feeding 6,000 students per day. Thus, Blackwell experimented with growing herbs and other produce in the Hydroponics Lab.

Italian parsley and Swiss chard
thrive in the hydroponics system
Effective July 1, 2019 the KSU Office of Research took over HGF management and renamed the farm the KSU Field Station. According to KSU Vice-President for Research Phaedra Corso, “The KSU Field Station is a valuable resource with endless possibilities to study how to protect and conserve our environment through different disciplinary lenses. We look forward to exploring new ways to make this Field Station a more integral and collaborative component of the KSU research experience for faculty and staff.

The Hydroponics Lab is integral to the farm's new life as the Field Station and will continue to grow quality lettuce, herbs and other produce for KSU's stellar farm-to-campus dining program. Under Blackwell's leadership, the Field Station may integrate technology with regenerative farming practices to grow local, nutritious food in a cost-effective manner. By example, the Field Station may showcase how to prevent and/or repair urban-food deserts.

Blackwell substantiates the Field Station's important contributions:
Through our work, not only are we demonstrating how to efficiently grow food in environmentally friendly ways, but we are also offering opportunities for KSU students and faculty to study the different biological and ecological systems so that we can be responsible stewards for our planet’s future,” 
The RiA Magazine article, Success is not static: evolution is required to create and sustain regeneration, details HGF's evolution from a campus farm to a research-field station. In addition, the article features the Georgia Institute of Technology sustainability team's visit to the farm as well as to KSU Dining Services.

An on-line version of the 2017 Southern Farm & Garden fall issue seven-page, multiple-article feature, the Ei Digital Book, Regenerative Agriculture Revives Soils & Local Ecosystems, showcases the incredible transformation of a former cement-mixing site into a regenerative farm. Holly provided the copy and photographs for the publication feature.

Spartanburg County Schools District Six
SCSD6 Hydroponic Greenhouse
In 2014 Spartanburg County Schools District Six (SCSD6) made a commitment to serve their students healthy food and brought food-service operations internal. Travis Fisher was hired as the Director of Food Services to oversee the culinary operations in the fourteen cafeterias as well as the catering operations.

SCSD6 SUCCESS: as shared in a WYFF July 2015 news report, SCSD6 served 38,000 more breakfasts, 106,000 more lunches, and 9,000 more dinners in the first year of serving healthy, from-scratch food to their students.

A natural extension of a healthy-food program is a farm-to-school focus supporting local agriculture. In 2016, SCSD6 evolved the farm-to-school focus to a campus-to-cafeteria endeavor with the construction of a greenhouse on the backside of the Dorman Freshman Campus. Buttercrunch lettuce, other lettuces, and herbs are grown in two different hydroponic formats for delivery to cafeterias.

SCSD6 NFT table-top system
In order to demonstrate diverse hydroponic/aeroponic growing techniques, SCSD6 first installed aeroponic tower systems and more recently installed a NFT tabletop-hydroponic system. SCSD6 learned the NFT system is much easier to monitor and maintain than the aeroponic towers.

At current capacity, the SCSDG greenhouse may grow 2,565 plants at any given time; each of the three aeroponic towers holds 675 plants for a total of 2,025 plants while the NFT systems grows up to 540 plants. At this juncture, 100% of the hydroponic-grown lettuces and herbs are destined for district-student dining.

SCSDG Director of Food Safety and Sustainability Patricia Tripp confirms food safety is a top priority within the district's commitment to serve healthy, nutritious food to students:
Growing hydroponically in a greenhouse allows the district to: 1) Grow year-around; 2) Grow in a sterilized medium that holds water and nutrients close to the roots of the plant; 3) Nurture the plants and students in a controlled and comfortable environment while providing a high-tech agriculture education. 
Aeroponic towers at SCSD6
The hydroponic greenhouse was a perfect step in SCSD6's evolution of the campus-to-cafeteria commitment to the recently launched Farm 2 School program.

In 2016, SCSD6 took possession of the 16-acre plot of land destined for the district's organic-certified farm. For the first year, farm staff tested the land to determine what could be grown crop-wise and officially opened as an operating farm in 2017. The SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor is the foundation for creating a hyper-local food system for SCSD6. Even with the farm fully operational, all lettuce is grown within the safety of the hydroponic greenhouse.

The RiA Magazine article, Spartanburg County School District Six: a culture of EXCELLENCE!, gives an overview of the impressive school district and introduces the Farm at Cragmoor. The Ei FB album, Spartanburg County School District Six, is a pictorial recap of SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor tours along with greenhouse images.

Center-to-Table Gardens
Center-to-Table open-air
aeroponic garden
Though commercial hydroponic gardens are generally enclosed in greenhouses, public facilities and schools often install open-air hydroponic systems for educational purposes. In addition, the open-air gardens provide ambiance as well as substantiate the facility's sustainability commitment.

Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), the second largest convention center in the nation, walks the sustainability talk with their Center-to-Plate gardens. Operated by OCCC food-service contractor Centerplate, the open-air hydroponic gardens are located in the Westwood lobby and greet convention attendees with a cheerful, sustainable welcome.

Opened in late 2016, the Center-to-Table Gardens were named the 2017 Outstanding Sustainable Program winner at the annual U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Central Florida region's LEEDership awards.

OCCC Sustainability Manager John Roberts substantiates the empowering message the Center-to-Table gardens give to arriving guests:
"Located immediately inside the main facility entrance, the Center-to-Plate Gardens welcome guests to the convention center via a wall of beautiful green foods; lettuce, kale, basil, scallions, mint. Strategically, guests ride alongside the gardens as they travel to main center levels. The gardens serve as a gateway into the myriad of sustainable experiences commonplace at the OCCC."
Colorful sprouts in the
Seedling Propagation Area
Toxic-chemical-free fruits, vegetables and edible flowers are grown from seed in the Seedling Propagation Area. Once mature, the saplings are transferred to the aeroponic towers to flourish until harvest. Urban Smart Farms manages the 2,000 square foot gardens, consisting of 81 aeroponic towers in two displays on opposite ends of the lobby.

With 44 planting spots per tower, the garden capacity is 3500+ concurrent plants. Planting is staggered to provide a consistent crop harvest. Delivered to Centerplate's kitchens, harvested crops are prepared for service to the convention center guests.

The onsite gardens allow Centerplate Executive Chef James “Chef K” Katurakes and his team the ability to use hyperlocal ingredients to increase the overall “Fresh from Florida” focus at the OCCC. Growing fully mature plants in 30 days also adds to their culinary creativity. At a fall 2018 event in the garden area co-hosted by OCCC and Centerplate at the UFI Sustainability Summit, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, a featured menu item was a small-plate salad composed of baby oak leaf lettuce hearts from the Center-to-Table Gardens.

OCCC - Centerplate Director of Sustainability Molly Crouch emphasizes Centerplate's strong support of and partnership with the OCCC on environmental commitments and endeavors:
John Roberts & Molly Crouch
in the aeroponic garden
Centerplate is a proud sustainable partner with the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in Orlando, Florida. The OCCC continues to raise its commitment to the environment through waste diversion, energy efficiency, community service, and local purchasing/sourcing including hyperlocal sourcing through its onsite Center-to-Table Gardens managed by Centerplate and its farming partner Urban Smart Farms.  
By having such a strong relationship with the OCCC, Centerplate is able to expand its own sustainable initiatives while working in congruence with the Center's goals. Centerplate looks forward to partnering with the OCCC for many years to come and continuing to advance sustainable programs and policies.
In September 2019, Molly hosted Holly for a photo shoot of the impressive aeroponic gardens and propagation area. The visit was also a follow-up meeting for the Ei Three-Step Straw Initiative.

The Holly Elmore Images FB album, Hydroponics Farming, showcases tours of the three featured commercial-hydroponic applications.

With the global population and desertification escalating along with a diminishing clean water supply, hydroponics farming holds promise to feed the world's citizens with healthy, nutritious food produced in a cost-effective and water-conscious manner.

... and remember relatively low-cost, lightweight commercial-grade plastic is the workhorse within the hydroponic-agriculture renaissance.

(1) The Hydroponics Planet article A Brief History of Hydroponics by Oscar Stephens was the primary resource for the History section.
(2) Quotes and information relating to the KSU Field Station were obtained from the July 17, 2019 KSU blog post, Office of Research manages sustainable farm renamed KSU Field Station.