Fossil fuel companies are fueling a global plastics binge; what will we do with it all?

plastic car
Promo image Perhaps we should just make everything out of plastic.

They are building hundreds of new "cracking" facilities to make 40 percent more plastic. Are we going to drown in it?

What's a fossil fuel company to do? Thanks to fracking, horizontal drilling, and the shale gas boom, there is more natural gas at a lower price than there has been in decades. People can't burn it fast enough, so the big oil companies like Exxon and Shell are investing US $180 billion in new plants to make plastics. According to Matthew Taylor in the Guardian,

“We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realizing we should use far less of it,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the US Center for International Environmental Law, which has analyzed the plastic industry. Around 99% of the feedstock for plastics is fossil fuels, so we are looking at the same companies, like Exxon and Shell, that have helped create the climate crisis. There is a deep and pervasive relationship between oil and gas companies and plastics.”

He quotes the American Chemistry Council, who says that 318 projects are under construction or on the boards.

“I can summarise [the boom in plastics facilities] in two words,” Kevin Swift, chief economist at the ACC, told the Guardian. “Shale gas.” He added: “There has been a revolution in the US with the shale gas technologies, with the fracking, the horizontal drilling. The cost of our raw material base has gone down by roughly two thirds.”

Essentially, they are flooding the world in cheap plastic; what they can't use in the USA they are exporting to Europe and China. This amounts to a 40 percent increase in plastics production over the next decade. And of course, when one is flooded with cheap plastic there is no incentive to recycle. There is also not a chance, with that kind of investment, that there is going to be any kind of ban of single-use plastics. If anything, there will be more bans of bans.

Garbage trucksGarbage trucks/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

About the only thing worth doing with it is probably going to be burning it like they do in Scandinavia, but that has a bigger carbon footprint per kWh than burning coal. Or I suppose we could start using more plastic foam and building materials instead of trying to use less. After all, as the VP of plastics for the ACC tells the Guardian:

Advanced plastics enable us to do more with less in almost every facet of life and commerce. From reducing packaging to driving lighter cars, to living in more fuel-efficient homes, plastics help us reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and waste.

A modest proposal

monsanto house of the future© Monsanto House of the Future

Perhaps I have been taking the wrong approach all this time, promoting natural materials with low embodied energy. Perhaps it is better to turn it into foam insulation and plastic building materials than it is to burn it, since leaving it in the ground is obviously not an option that is on the table.

interior© Monsanto House of the Future interior

Perhaps it is time to bring back the plastic house, like the Monsanto House of the Future. Then Exxon and Shell could keep pumping gas and we could put all that plastic to better use than just water bottles and plastic bags that are turned into incinerator fuel.

Monsanto house of the future© Monsanto House of the Future interior

Of course, this is all tongue and cheek; there are other problems with plastics in buildings, including the fact that they burn even though they are full of terrible flame retardants and that they often are softened with gender-bending phtalates. But the fact is, we are faced with an insurmountable problem of an industry that insists on making more plastics, in a world with no room for it.

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