Should we really be building out of plastic? No.

monsanto house of the future
© Monsanto House of the Future

We covered previously the news that the big chemical companies were investing US$ 180 billion in new facilities to make plastics, increasing production capacity by 40 percent, adding another 120 million tons to the approximately 300 million tons being made each year now. The expansion of shale gas in the US has dropped the price of feedstocks by two thirds, they have to do something with all that gas to make a profit from drilling for it.

I got off on a tangent, a modest proposal that perhaps it was a better idea to turn all those plastics into building materials that last instead of disposable bottles that get dumped in the ocean- that if we are going to make plastic, let's make it last.

I was wrong. Because when you start looking at how plastics are actually made, it turns out that their manufacture has a huge carbon footprint.

The Pacific Institute, a non-profit research organization, estimates that the energy used in the production and use of plastic bottles, such as water bottles, is equivalent to filling the plastic bottles one-quarter full with oil.... The manufacture of one pound of PET -- polyethylene terephthalate -- plastic can produce up to three pounds of carbon dioxide.

Other sites claim that it is more efficient, generating only 1 pound of CO2 per pound of plastic. That means our 300 million tons of plastics are generating between 300 and 900 million tons of CO2 per year. That's about 2.3 percent of all the CO2 generated by human activity in the world. And that's just the manufacture of the stuff; then it is transported, turned into products and then tossed or recycled.

Some have pointed out that all doesn't have to be lost; plastics can be recycled (but 91 percent of them are not) and they can even be turned back into fossil fuels through pyrolysis or burned directly to create energy, putting CO2 into the air again in either case.

This is why I was wrong when I suggested that we could build plastic houses out of it; even a sheet of expanded polystyrene foam may be 90 percent air but still weighs a couple of pounds, responsible for a couple of pounds of CO2. If someone could start making an insulation material out of old bottles and bags we might have something but so far as we know, we do not.

It's time to move away from plastics in building, not toward it. I apologize for the cute diversion.

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