The Plastic Problem

  In previous posts I have covered decarbonization of energy and it is high time to continue to look at the  complex interconnected global industrial system focusing on one of its dominant components: Plastics. It is past time to cover Dematerialization of plastics.

      Who can forget the key line of the 1967 movie The Graduate,when Dustin Hoffman got the famous advice for his career: “Plastics.”

Back in 1967 plastics were known and utilized in society but who would have expected that plastics would within 50 years become such a dominant industrial substrate and worldwide pollutant and contributor to species extinction and CO2 emission induced climate change? Plastic pollution is now on the radar of environmentalists but I see little in the way of restricting plastic use anywhere outside of some insignificant silliness like banning plastic straws. Less silly are some decent first steps like banning plastic bags. One nation, Vanuatu, has in fact recently banned plastic bags nationally and is attempting to add many other plastic product bans to their list. Other nations such as Chile have made efforts in the same direction which no surprise has been fought vigorously by the plastic industry.

Which companies are the dominant polluters of our oceans and waterways. Greenpeace and some other environmental organizations have compiled worldwide oceanic surveys and here are worst of the worst:

  1. Coca-Cola
  2. PepsiCo
  3. Nestlé
  4. Danone
  5. Mondelez International
  6. Procter & Gamble
  7. Unilever
  8. Perfetti van Melle
  9. Mars Incorporated
  10. Colgate-Palmolive

As soon as the spotlight was on them, many of these companies scrambled through their PR Departments to pledge better recycling in the future but virtually none offered to remove plastic entirely from their packaging. This is patent nonsense of course. Most plastics are not recycled and many countries starting with China have stopped accepting unsorted plastic trash for recycling. The whole recycling movement is largely a bogus feelgood scam to make consumers assuage their guilt about plastic use in their lives. This writer’s opinion is that most plastic recycling is a waste of time and energy and does nothing to reduce the USE OF PLASTIC in our lives. Another factor is that the price for Ethane, the feedstock has hit rock bottom in the past several tears making recycling economically pointless. Here is a recent graph from the EIA of current prices for the main natural gas liquids:                         

https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrocarbon-gas-liquids/prices-for-hydrocarbon-gas-liquids.php.     The only way to get rid of single use plastic pollution is to stop producing it! Who are the biggest producers of  PE/PP plastics?

Top Plastic Manufacturing Companies in USA – Manufacturers of Plastics and Plastic Goods


Table 2 – Summary of top U.S.A plastics manufacturers

NameHeadquartersAnnual Revenue (Billion $)**Mkt Cap (Billion $)***
Exxon MobilIrving, TX237.16308.87
Chevron Corp.San Ramon, CA134.78215.82
DowDuPont Inc.Midland, MI62.37146.67
Eastman Chemical CompanyKingsport, TN9.51

There are no surprises here if you are familiar with the feedstock for single use plastic: Fossil Fuels. Specifically natural gas. More specifically the Ethane fraction of natural gas which undergoes conversion to Ethylene which becomes the precursor to Poly ethylene(PE), polypropylene(PP) and a myriad of others. It is the polyethylene plastics that are called “Food grade” that dominate plastic pollution and the shocking fact of PE production is that these big oil and gas and chemical companies have been on a massive multi-billion dollar factory construction binge in the past few years primarily along the US Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana to meet the “increasing demand.” One new factory in Texas built by Dow claims to be the world’s largest facility:

HOUSTON (ICIS)–DowDuPont Materials Science, the business division of DowDuPont to be named Dow, on Thursday announced the start-up of its new integrated world-scale ethylene production facility and its new ELITE enhanced polyethylene (PE) production facility, both in Freeport, Texas.

The units will continue to ramp up through the third quarter and are expected to reach full rates in the fourth quarter of 2017.

The ethylene production facility has an initial nameplate capacity of 1.5m tonnes/year. As part of a next wave of investment, capacity will be expanded to 2m tonnes/year, “making it the world’s largest ethylene facility”, the company said.

Exxon Mobil in Baumont Texas has also just completed an enormous facility to produce PE : Here is the PR announcement:

ExxonMobil begins production on Beaumont high-performance polyethylene line

IRVING, Texas – ExxonMobil said today it started production on a new high-performance polyethylene line at its Beaumont, Texas polyethylene plant. The expansion increases plant production capacity by 65 percent or 650,000 tons per year, bringing site capacity to nearly 1.7 million tons per year.

ExxonMobil begins production on Beaumont high-performance polyethylene line

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  • Increases polyethylene plant production capacity by 65 percent or 650,000 tons-per-year
  • Project supported more than 2,000 temporary jobs and approximately 40 permanent jobs
  • Expansion makes Texas the company’s largest polyethylene producer.

Notice that this enormous highly automated computerized facility not only will produce 1.7 million tons of PE but it has created 40 permanent jobs to boot!

If you go on the Industry organization websites you might be aghast as I was to see no sign of industry guilt or responsibility for causing worldwide plastic pollution. It’s not their fault. It harks back to the old NRA phrase that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Dow doesn’t cause plastic pollution. People cause plastic pollution.

This blogger has a pessimistic outlook of any meaningful chances for measures to mitigate climate change because of the lack of leverage and pressure points to alter the growth paradigm but I feel that that is not the case with plastic pollution. There are many measures that we as individuals can do and many individuals and organizations now having an effect at the local and state level. There needs to be a national and international initiative to END ALL USE OF SINGLE USE PLASTICS WORLDWIDE. That means that any new plastics factories being built to produce single use plastics need to be stopped. This will be a hard sell given  the obvious political power of the globalized oil and chemical companies in Texas and Louisiana. The only high paying jobs in the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana are in the petrochemical and Oil and gas industry.  These existing factories might be able to reconfigured to producing different plastic: multiuse, durable and long lasting and not single use garbage. These companies are arguably indifferent to the ecological damage they have caused to the planet for decades and until they are brought to heel by concerted consumer driven pressure, they are unlikely to yield their power and influence. The national grocery chains could play a big role if they leaned on their suppliers en masse and ship their products in bulk, paper or glass and metal. That is the way it was done just 50 years ago and it could be done again. No beverages should be bottled in single use plastic and that includes the worst offender: bottled water. Most people remember the French Bottler Perrier and their iconic light green 1 liter bottles. If plastic containers could be returned for refill and reuse just the way that coca cola reused their beautiful sexy glass  coke bottles, plastic containers could remain in circulation. Put a deposit on the containers. British Columbia has a 10 cent deposit on glass and plastic bottles ut to one liter. Put deposits on containers of all sizes so they can be returned for reuse or incineration! The problem of course is that sterilization and reuse of plastic containers is problematic at least for polyethylene which disintegrates rapidly compared to many other plastics. It disintegrates into smaller and smaller particles and is  eventually ingested by all living organisms in the food chain. I read recently that most samples of Sea Salt are now contaminated with microplastics.

  •  

Since recycling of plastics is largely a failure, the obvious solution in my opinion is to burn most plastics in efficient furnaces which could include co-generation and electricity generation. It is possible to burn plastics cleanly if they are not co mingled with other household trash because remember: Polyethylene comes from a natural gas fraction:ethane, and any plastics in that family could be burned to generate heat and electricity. David Reed in a letter to the Guardian Newspaper had this to say about burning plastics: “The effort of collecting, transporting and cleaning plastics for possible recycling has largely failed, created much more pollution and contributed massively to climate change. The idea of burning plastics and using the energy to heat our homes was proposed by the plastics company Dow more than 30 years ago: it suggested treating all plastics as “borrowed oil”. At that time, ordinary domestic waste had a calorific value of low-grade coal, so the suggestion was that this plastic waste should be burned in efficient plants with heat recovery and treatment of the gases produced, perhaps even trapping the carbon dioxide produced, rather than trying to recycle the complex (and dirty) mix of plastics.  Today, with higher use of more complex plastics, this makes even more sense. Mixed plastics cannot really be recycled: they are long-chain molecules, like spaghetti, so if you reheat and reprocess them, you inevitably end up with something of lower performance; it’s called down-cycling.”

      This approach to stopping worldwide plastic pollution can succeed using a region by region approach applying pressure at the local and regional level long enough that the packagers and producers will be forced to do the right thing. They are certain to fight tooth and nail using the legal system, the Interstate Commerce Rules and lobbying their political toadies to preserve their wealth and power. If the consumer stops buying their garbage, they will be forced to stop selling it.

Published by Rendezvous Mountain Farm

I was born in Montana and raised in a dozen Air Force SAC bases. I attended Holy Cross,West Point and UNC in Chapel Hill(MD"71). Army doc in the last years of the Viet Nam fiasco. My wife and I live in a log cabin I built from local timber in Wilson Wyoming in 1976 . I've done a dozen different jobs including construction, boat building,magazine writing and commercial fishing and retired from the Emergency and Operating Room in 2004. We manage a small diversified organic farm including leased land which totals about 50 acres in the beautiful alpine setting of the Jackson Hole valley. We raise a variety of livestock which includes some rare and diversified breeds of animals and poultry. We grow most of our food and forage. Our land is irrigated from Lake Creek and the Snake River and we raise and bale our own organic hay.

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