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The plastic trap

Image: Bo Eide

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II is one of those popular science documentaries that occasionally capture the public imagination.  Among the various harms documented, examples of the impact of plastic on the marine environment have helped spur a wave of public indignation of the “something must be done” type.  Among the suggested “somethings” are:

  • More recycling
  • Surfacing roads with recycled plastic
  • Banning microbeads and microfibers
  • Charging a refundable deposit on plastic bottles
  • Protesting against supermarket packaging.

Each is intended – either directly or indirectly – to cut the amount of plastic being produced.  It is a seductive idea.  Anyone who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s can remember a time when we consumed a tiny fraction of the plastic that is ubiquitous today.  Liquids came in recyclable glass bottles.  Shopping was carried in baskets made from organic material.  Fruit and vegetables were usually bought loose.  Where items needed to be wrapped, brown paper bags and old newsprint were used.  Surely it cannot be beyond us to return to the (relatively) plastic-free lifestyle of the past?

There are three things that you need to keep in mind about our plastic-free past.  First, there were a lot less of us in those days.  The world population hit three billion in 1959.  It is around 7.5 billion today, and is projected to rise to 10 billion by mid-century.  Second, the proportion of households with cars was much smaller then than now.  According to the Department for Transport, there were just four million licensed vehicles on Britain’s roads in 1950 compared to 34 million in 2010.  Third, the global economy depends upon petroleum fuel to keep the supply chains running.

Why does this matter?

The thing we tend to forget about plastic is that it is, in a sense, a waste product to start with.  That is, when crude oil is refined, fuels of various kinds account for four fifths of the oil, with a series of by-products accounting for the remaining fifth:

Among this remaining fifth is the two percent that is used as a chemical feedstock for a range of products including plastics.  Go back to 1950, when just a handful of countries (the USA, Europe and Japan) had widespread car ownership, and we find that total world oil production was 10.42 million barrels per day.  Since then it has risen tenfold to more than 98 million barrels per day.  That adds up to a great deal more “by-products” (i.e., waste) for the oil industry to do something with if we are to keep the global supply chains running.  In 1950, just 1.7 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide.  Today we produce nearly 300 million tons of the stuff.

Using the open source Source Map platform, we can generate a supply chain map for just about any product that we find in our shops.  Here’s one for a laptop computer:

Image: Source Map


Remember that the reason we are able to buy items like laptop computers and smartphones for a relatively low price is because of the economies of scale made by focussing production on Asia and consumption in Europe and the USA.  Underpinning our ability to do this is the relatively cheap fuel that powers our vans, trucks, ships and planes.

One way that the price of fuel is kept relatively low is by selling the waste products.  And because these are specialist and in relatively short supply, they can be used to cross-subsidise the price of fuel.

What we do know is that every major recession in the post war period was preceded by an upward spike in the price of oil.  What we also know is that oil prices above $60 per barrel for any length of time result in recession because our collective purchasing power cannot sustain them.  In recent years we have settled into a price zone of $40-$60; any higher than this and the economy crashes, any lower and oil companies go bust.

The point of this in relation to plastic is simply this – the only way we can stop producing plastics is to leave the feedstocks for the refineries to dispose of.  Whether we stop consuming plastic or recycle the plastics we already have, the impact is the same – increasing volumes of waste piling up at the refineries.  Incidentally, were we foolish enough to use recycled plastic as a road surface, we would merely add to the problem by piling up asphalt – already one of the most recyclable of all oil by-products (more than 90 percent is reused) – while merely delaying rather than preventing the toxins making their way to the ocean.

Assuming we were to dramatically cut the amount of plastic we use, it would be foolish to assume that this would not have far-reaching ramifications.  The oil refineries are not going to simply build and fill ever larger storage facilities for all of the by-products, while continuing to supply us with cheap(ish) fuel.  Not only will the lost income from the by-products have to be added to fuel prices, but so too will the additional costs of safely disposing (assuming that is environmentally and economically possible) of the now unwanted by-products.  This would be the equivalent of jacking fuel prices up to economy-busting levels without providing the oil companies with the additional profitability that would be derived from crude prices in excess of $60 per barrel… an economic lose/lose for all of us.

At those prices, the global supply chains that provide us with so much of the stuff – including food –we consume become economically unsustainable.  Shipping companies and haulage firms cannot raise prices without crashing their market share.  But without the necessary return on investment, they become insolvent.  It is then only a matter of time before globalisation is thrown into reverse as economies are forced to shrink and re-localise.

Put simply, then, the reason we have so much plastic pollution is that we produce too much plastic.  The reason we produce too much plastic is because oil refineries have to do something with the waste products.  Neither consumption strikes, bans or additional recycling solve the waste problem; they merely move it back to the oil refineries.

The unpalatable truth – as with so much else in the environmental/green space – is that if we do not want the pollution, we have to leave the remaining fossil carbon (coal, gas and oil) in the ground.  This, however, involves the kind of sacrifices (like having to walk to the shops, having to fall back on locally-grown seasonal food, and having to take a lower-paid job closer to home) that most so-called “greens” are simply not prepared to contemplate.  Environmentalism, it seems, always falls short of actually changing lifestyles that we readily acknowledge to be unsustainable.

So, instead, we will have another round of e-petitions, implausible and unworkable recycling technologies and a cacophony of social media green virtue-signalling, until such time as Sir David’s series has faded from memory and some new environmental crisis hits the headlines.

As you made it to the end…

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