Plastics - Bad Idea for the Planet
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
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Plus an interview with Bill McKibben! (scroll down)
Recently I walked into a convenience store and was faced with a garbage bin overflowing with plastic bottles. This site reminded me that plastic bottles are a ubiquitous environmental problem and that perhaps we should focus more attention on decreasing their production. The reason? According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (https://www.nrdc.org/), more than 99 percent of plastic is created from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels! And when fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, natural gas) are burned, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which trap heat in our atmosphere and cause global warming.
Plastics, Fracking, Profit
Most plastics produced in the United States are derived from fossil fuel-based petrochemicals such as natural gas. Natural gas contains ethane, a fundamental building block of plastic. Ethane is separated from natural gas and made into a liquid form that is transferred via pipeline to an “ethane cracker,” where intense heat breaks apart ethane molecules to form ethylene, used to make plastics. Information services company IHS Markit Ethylene Market Outlook informs that even with delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most new ethane cracker projects are going ahead—especially in Asia. Profit drives overproduction of natural gas, in large part due to an increase in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. The increase in fracking has created a decline in gas prices, an increase in profits for fossil fuel companies -- and the release of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more toxic than carbon dioxide.
What Does the Future Look Like?
Not good! According to the International Energy Agency (https://www.iea.org/), the United States, the largest exporter of ethane, currently has 40 percent of global capacity to produce ethane-based petrochemicals. IHS Markit states that if unfettered, U.S. natural gas production is projected to grow by more than 50 percent, from approximately 80 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2017 to 123 Bcf/d in 2040. As reported in Plastics News (click here for article), the fossil fuel and plastics industries view the change as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” and a “coming renaissance” for North American plastics. Alarmingly, the American Chemistry Council (https://www.ACC Fact Sheets) reports that by 2023 the chemical industry is expected to spend more than $164 billion on 264 new facilities and expansion projects specifically to take advantage of shale, or sedimentary rock, gas.
Stopping the Money Pipeline
For an eye-opening take of what can be done, and is being done, to decrease the profits that fossil-fuel companies reap as they pose an existential threat to our planet, click on this link. There you can listen to solutions put forth by American environmentalist Bill McKibben, best-selling author, co-founder of 350.org, and recipient of the International Gandhi Peace Prize.
Dylan D’Agate, a Sierra Club member, is a junior at Half Hollow Hills High School East, Dix Hills, NY, and a leader in his school’s environmental club.