Peak Plastic: One Generation’s Trash Is Another Generation’s Treasure

By Guest Blogger | July 2, 2012 10:23 am

Debbie Chachra is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, with research interests in biological materials, education, and design. You can follow her on Twitter: @debcha.

In 1956, M. King Hubbert laid out a prediction for how oil production in a nation increases, peaks, and then quickly falls down. Since then many analysts have extended this logic and said that global oil production will soon max out—a point called “peak oil“—which could throw the world economy into turmoil.

I’m a materials scientist by training, and one aspect of peak oil I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.

The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. Still, this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.

But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still only account for about 2% world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.

Plastic is more than just water bottles and Tupperware. If you’re indoors, look around. There’s a good bet that much of what’s in your field of view is made of plastic. Paint. Carpeting. Upholstery. The finish on a wood floor. Veneer on furniture. And that’s before you go into your kitchen, or bathroom, and never mind a subway car or a hospital (disposable, sterile medical supplies, anyone?). Plastic is so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible.

In the last century or so, chemists and chemical engineers have developed thousands of plastics for use in tens of thousands of applications, if not more. That means that we’ll need to find replacements for these oil-based plastics for every one of those uses. While we’ll be able to make some of them from alternative feedstocks (like natural gas, already the source for most polyethylene), the increased cost makes previously unconsidered renewable sources much more viable. It’s likely to be a different world.

But there will still be applications that really need petroplastic, so landfills will become goldmines. The characteristic drawback of plastic, its stubborn resistance to degradation (“this plastic bag will still be around in ten thousand years!”) may become a virtue, as it sits unchanged in anaerobic landfills waiting for us to decide that it’s worth excavating and recycling. And one day we’ll do just that—there’ll come a point when the easy, albeit expensive, way to get a particular combination of properties (formability, degradation resistance, sterilisability) will be to dig up post-consumer plastics and reuse them.

And one day in the future, cool, slick petroplastics will become a repository of warm nostalgia. I like to imagine the Brooklyn-hipsters-of-the-future, on their rooftops, using vodka and bitter almond oil to make artisanal polyethylene.

This post is slightly modified from one that was originally posted at warrenellis.com.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • http://www.rheothing.com John Spevacek
  • Paul

    But if we’re running out of oil—some experts say we are near the point of peak oil, after which the output only declines—that also means that we’re running out of plastic.

    A great deal of plastic is produced from feedstocks derived from natural gas, not oil. Shale gas in the US is rich in ethane, which is (when converted to ethylene) gives US plastics makes a competitive advantage.

    All plastics could be made from non-oil, or even non-fossil, sources without enormous trouble. Unlike fossil fuels being converted to transportation fuel, the amount of carbon going into plastics is well within the capability of biomass sources to supply.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Paul: Sorry, due to an editing error (mine!), I had to fix the wording. Nothing substantive—just wanted it to be clear that your quote was accurate before I tweaked the text.

    Debbie did mention the fact that some plastic is made from natural gas and some from biomass, but she said that some applications would still really demand petroplastic.

  • Georg

    Oil and nat gas are interchangable with respect to plastics production.

    Peak oil will lead to a big increase in price of all synthetic materials, and coal will be used profitably to sythesize new/old plastics.

    In short: general wealth will dwindle.

    Georg

  • http://www.rheothing.com John Spevacek

    Amos

    What applications? Honestly, we can already make PE from sugar (Braskem/Dow are doing that in Brazil), everybody already knows about the plant-based PET bottles that Coke is highly publicizing…Alkanes, aromatics,.. what are we missing? What please, tell me what is so difficult about making plastics from non-petroleum sources?

    So first Debbie says that peak oil = peak plastic, but now backs down and says well, only for some unidentified plastics. Is she going to back down from this again when someone further challenges her on these specific plastics?

    Do you realize that comments like Debbie’s are saying that all the chemists and chemical engineers on the planet are so incompetent that they cannot overcome this problem? How can you give her any credibility at all in this matter and continue to defend her? It was a stupid statement from the get-go.

    How about next time you interview all of us instead of a nay-sayer who has already backed down from her outlandish statement as soon as someone called her out on it?

  • K.Jean

    Calm down John. No one..including Debbie has said we are not able to make from other substances, or that our scientists can’t make from whatever. BUT she does have a point..that peak plastic is over, when peak oil is over. This HAS to include costs. Oil is still the cheapest for plastics.. And we will have to convert manufacturing to other substances. COST my boy cost. YES science can make plastics from just about anything. but the PEAK plastic days are definately going to have a BIG burp.

  • Debbie Chachra

    Thanks all, for your thoughtful comments.

    John Spevacek, I appreciate your passion and expertise. As K.Jean points out, I specifically noted the cost issue as leading to non-petroleum-based plastics (if you follow the links to “previously unconsidered renewable sources”, you’ll see some more examples). At present, only PE is substantively made from natural gas. As the cost of oil rises, alternate feedstocks will come into play including, as you correctly noted, both biological and non-biological sources. Some of these feedstocks will be used to make the commodity plastics that we are used to. But increasing cost of production (whether it’s raw materials or switchover to different feedstocks) is likely to give us a chance–and an incentive–to reconsider the materials we are making. A small example of this would be the switch from slick white polystyrene to beige, porous biodegradable polymer for disposable cutlery. This is the sense in which I mean that it’ll “be a different world”. Not that there won’t be polymers–which have existed since long before humans, after all–but that they’ll be quite different from what many people currently think of as ‘plastic’.

    Do I think it’s possible that alternate feedstocks will come into play at a reasonable cost, so that the world 50 years from now will look exactly the same as ours now, with polyethylene shopping bags and millions of PET drink bottles and ubiquitous disposable PVC containers? Sure. But I think it’s far more likely that the combination of economics and sustainability issues means that all our smart, productive chemists and chemical engineers will come up with amazing new materials, and also effective ways to recycle all the plastic that’s currently stored in landfills.

  • http://www.rheothing.com John Spevacek

    KJean,

    Please look up the definition of “peak oil” – it is the point at which oil production will be at an all time peak. Since plastic can be made from materials other than oil, peak oil doesn’t mean peak plastic.

    Look closely at what is claimed in the article: “But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic.” There are none of the disclaimers that you adding – cost for instance. It is a flat out claim that we are running out of plastic, period.

    I continue to be amazed that people are defending Debbie’s statements. “Well, yeah it’s not quite true, but what she really meant was…”

    There are way to many other exciting innovations that Discover can write about rather than waste their time on this trash. (pun intended)

  • Pingback: La sélection scientifique de la semaine (no 31) | Passeur de sciences

  • john

    boy will i be happy when plastic peaks ! i hate plastic. i like wood. i like glass. i like metal.
    i live in a damn plastic house: siding, doors-door frams, wind frames (and of course fabrics, paints etc.) i haven’t checked out my “suv” and rubicon but damn it i bet it is plastic. i’m afraid I’M plastic. but i will die and decompose in a short time, hopefully not to become “plastic” (soylent green thinking.)

  • john

    wind(ow) frames — new idea: flatulence green

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