Paul Goettlich 3 Sep 2021
Without an unprecedented reversal of our blasé use of fossil fuels, humans have literally everything to lose with Climate Change. “Megafires” are increasing in frequency in the US. Last year, wildfires burned a record 10 million acres in the west — more than 15,000 square miles! And this year promises to be far worse as a “Heat Dome” caused an early, hotter and drier heat wave that buckled highways and melted power lines along the West Coast as far north as British Columbia, with temperatures reaching 122˚F (50˚C). Weather fluctuations now resemble deranged washing machines, skittering across the world, randomly dispersing unprecedented magnitudes of fire, ice, water and violent winds. After a majority was vaccinated for Covid-19, their pent-up emotional energies were freed and now they’re all getting high on greenhouse gasses – flying in jets and going on road trips. But our pursuit of a care-free lifestyle with plastics is just as much of a flagrant use of fossil fuels as flying or driving motor vehicles.
This article focuses primarily on plastics as a cause of Climate Change. Because plastics are made of more than 99% fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal – every part of their existence contributes to Climate Change. From their extraction, transportation, cracking and production to combustion and disposal, every part of their existence contributes to Climate Change by emitting greenhouse gasses.
Plastics began modestly in 1862 when John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer that contained no molecules found in nature. But it wasn’t until more than 80 years later, after WW2, that plastic production spread rapidly throughout the world, with increases that paralleled increases in fossil fuel production, leading to increases in atmospheric greenhouse gasses and ultimately to Climate Change. Societal acceptance of plastics increased to the point today where most products are either reliant on synthetic polymers and plastics or made of them. Examples are transportation, building construction, interior finishes and furniture, clothing, healthcare and agriculture – both organic and conventional.
Extremely few people question how plastic is made, where it comes from or where it goes after it’s not wanted. And equally, few people link it to our current plight of Climate Change and all it piles on us.
But We Need Plastics?
After writing about plastics since the early 1990s, I’m deeply troubled by scientists and activists who state publicly that “we need plastic.” One scientist speaking recently at an international conference in Amsterdam proclaimed that plastics saved the life of a relative’s newborn child. On a short-term and personal basis, that’s understandable, but it’s more of an emotional claim than the logical, scientific statement that one expects from a scientist. And one expects much, much more from that particular scientist.
Fossil fuels are vilified as a cause of Climate Change. Similarly, plastics must be rejected because they account for a significant amount of all fossil fuels produced. To state the obvious, our long-term existence is in severe jeopardy as a result of all plastics. They facilitate a lifestyle in which we ignore that they are existential threats to our own lives and all which supports us.
The advantages of plastics – durability, low weight, ease in forming and relative low cost – are mere temptations distracting our reasoning from the myriad of highly negative effects they’ve burdened us with. The durability of plastic is highly overrated, as its low cost fails to account for the environmental damage it causes for centuries after its production. Even without mentioning the effects of Climate Change, the societal costs of plastics put on us by the producing corporations are overwhelming.
But its pièce de résistance is Climate Change!
Acceptance of plastic products is based on extremely disingenuous corporate advice and advertising that has thoroughly beguiled us into believing they’re safe. As corporations have always been laser-focused on profit, they withhold vital facts and lie about plastics. Because the industry knows or should have known about those innumerable lies and political manipulations, most of what they state should be disbelieved. They regularly bate and switch chemicals that are found to be more toxic than the ones replaced. The same goes for greenhouse gasses. A case in point is refrigerants such as CFCs which were replaced by HFCs, later to be found to be worse. Pesticides are another example.
But just know that plastics cannot be made nontoxic; cannot be recycled; cannot be removed from where they’ve intruded; have contaminated all possible spaces on Earth, and possibly worse; they emit greenhouse gasses that increase Climate Change. I’m baffled by human acceptance of such a substance that is overwhelmingly negative and a bona fide existential threat to all life. Not just one or even hundreds of thousands, but all life on Earth.
From the moment of extraction, through production, use and disposal, plastic emits greenhouse gasses. All uses of fossil fuels contribute to Climate Change, whether leaked into the atmosphere, burned, heated, mixed or formed into plastics, pesticides, lubricants or even pharmaceuticals, beauty products and paints! Plastics account for a significant amount of all fossil fuel use. And that should no longer be ignored.
In the last 70 years, there’s been an explosive increase in plastic production. And it’s poised to increase even more sharply in this decade. Thus, pushing greenhouse gasses yet higher. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is just one of many greenhouse gases. If its global emissions were halted today, it would take several hundred years before the majority of human emissions were removed from the atmosphere. Several other greenhouse gasses have increased rapidly, including methane, and nitrous oxide. It’s about much more than just CO2 !
Coal Gas & Oil
Coal, gas and oil are the materials that make plastics. Natural gas plays a larger role in US plastics production than oil because of its abundance there. Europe relies more on oil and China more on coal.
As a group, polyethylene has the largest production in the U.S., mostly for packaging – plastic bags, wrap, moisture barriers, coatings of drink boxes and a lot more. Polyethylene also contributes the most plastic waste in the U.S. It’s made from ethylene (C2H4 ), another part of natural gas which is also a greenhouse gas. Sixty-percent of all ethylene manufactured each year becomes one of many types of polyethylene plastic. The energy used to produce ethylene comes from more natural gas, oil, or even coal-fired plants. According to an article in the journal Science, natural gas emissions from the U.S. oil and natural gas supply chain are about 60% higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inventory estimate.
Destruction, Energy Usage and Leakage
Plastics production begins with extracting oil, natural gas or coal, which involves the defiling of vast areas of land, both above and below the surface, as well as rivers, lakes and atmosphere. Great quantities of toxic substances are pumped into the ground during extraction. And great quantities of fuels are consumed transporting raw resources via truck, train and pipelines to processing facilities, themselves releasing greenhouse gasses. Oil and gas extraction and wastewater disposal from oil and gas has caused many earthquakes.
Beginning in 2009, Oklahoma experienced a surge in earthquakes. The largest earthquake known to be induced by fluid wastewater disposal from oil and gas production was a magnitude 5.8 earthquake on September 23, 2016 in central Oklahoma. Four magnitude 5+ earthquakes have occurred in Oklahoma, three of which occurred in 2016. They’ve occurred in several states.
Natural gas is cracked by very high heat until its large hydrocarbon molecules are broken (cracked) into smaller ones, monomers such as ethylene. Its production exceeds that of any other organic compound (any compound of carbon). Ethylene is the feedstock of many types of polyethylene. Manufacturing products from the feedstock requires more energy and releases more greenhouse gasses. As of 2017, over 100 million tonnes of polyethylene resins are being produced annually, accounting for 34% of the total plastics market. This will increase dramatically as plastic production could almost quadruple by 2050!
Even after these raw plastics become products, they continue to emit greenhouse gasses. The amount emitted into the atmosphere by these finished plastic products is relative to their surface area. With age and depending on individual conditions, they all breakdown into continually smaller pieces, leading to higher surface areas relative to each product’s original mass. And that facilitates significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions than from the original product. Imagine your car’s tires becoming worn down. All the microscopic dust that is worn off the tires by abrasion on the roadways emits higher quantities of greenhouse gasses because the surface to volume ratio is higher than the original new tire.
Why is Surface Area to Volume Ratio Important?
To understand this process, picture a 1-inch cube with a surface area of 6 square inches. When that cube is divided into eight 1/2-inch cubes, its surface area doubles to 12 square inches. With each such subdivision, the surface area doubles again. By the 20th subdivision, the surface area is about one square acre. With three more such divisions, the surface area equals 12 square acres. Yet amazingly, the solid volume remains at 1 cubic inch. Plastic nanoparticles continue to break down into single molecules that are totally invisible to the naked eye and emit far greater amounts of greenhouse gasses than the original products.
This important example illustrates how plastics become more toxic as they age. But it also illustrates how minute quantities of plastic can easily spread over vast areas of the world, on land, in the air, in oceans, as well as our food and bodies, forever modifying life as we think we know it.
Corporate Climate Change
Plastics have become a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry after it was were hit hard by the drop in usage as a result of the Covid pandemic. Not so far from the first oil well by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania, the Royal Dutch Shell PLC joined economic forces with the plastics industry near natural gas fields in Monaca, PA. Employing more than 5,000 people on a 386-acre property along the Ohio River, it’s presently “one of the largest active construction projects in the United States.” It will include hundreds of miles of pipeline and a rail system with 3,300 freights cars producing over a million tons a year. It’s a massive project that will have undeniable effects on Climate Change. A unit of state-owned Thai oil and gas company PTT PCL is also developing an ethane cracker in the same region.
As natural gas is extracted from the earth, methane is its largest part. As ethane is isolated from natural gas, it’s converted to ethylene and the methane is shipped to residential and commercial customers as “natural gas” fuel. Ethylene itself is a greenhouse gas. But methane traps significantly more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 and does about 25 times more damage to the climate over a 100-year period than CO2 .
Plastics production is one of few opportunities for the gas industry to profit from ethane. Without using it in plastics, the fracking industry would be unable to justify using many of its wells. That puts Monaca, PA in the cross-hairs of both the gas and plastics industries. But don’t over-focus on polyethylene because the list of other types of plastics is seemingly endless. And all are made of 99% fossil fuels.
Everybody Knows, But . . .
Three-hundred years before the birth of Christ, Aristotle knew that human activity modified local climates. Christopher Columbus experienced that the clearing of the forest cover of the Madeira, Canary, and Azores islands reduced their rain and mist. And his words were recalled as evidence to remove forests by white European settlers who were unprepared for the climate of North America.
In 1959, physicist Edward Teller delivered a warning speech to a large audience at the Energy and Man symposium, which was organized by the American Petroleum Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Business. He said, “Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. . . It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York.”
Almost weekly, studies have gotten increasingly more detailed, specific and urgent because of improvements in surveillance and data analysis. In 1968, there was another report to the American Petroleum Institute (API) by Stanford Research Institute (SRI) that warned that if left unabated, petroleum use “could bring about climatic changes.” In 1990, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted dire consequences of fossil fuel use. In 2019, the Department of Defense stated clearly that Climate Change is “a national security issue. . .”
By the end of 2020, more than 57,000 wildfires burned more than 10.3 million acres. In California, 31 people died and a record 4.2 million acres burned with 10,500 structures damaged or destroyed. Because of a historic drought, many of these enormous forest areas that have been consumed by fire are not reproducing. Also consider that since the year 1600, more than “90% of the virgin forests that once covered much of the lower 48 states have been cleared away.” I must repeat with emphasis: It all leads back to Climate Change!
Plastic Never Retires
Recycling plastic after we’ve finished with the bags, toys and medical paraphernalia is not actually possible on a large scale, nor will it be in the future. And focusing on only one part of the plastic problem is myopic when it’s all bad. The bulk of it – more than 99% – heads toward landfills, incinerators or it just flies in the wind. My last article on Socialist Action, “The Truth About Recycling Plastics,” explains that less than 1% of all plastic is recycled twice. Labeling plastics recycling as ineffective is extremely indulgent because it is nothing more than a scheme cooked up by the plastic industry to put the cost of the mess on citizens and prolong production. The stuff can’t actually be recycled in the true sense of the word (not the industry-invented one).
Plastic in landfills retards the degradation of the materials it surrounds. Hidden from sunlight below grade, its material state is essentially preserved. But it continues to release greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals.
The oceans and all life in them are being choked to death and made sterile.
Incinerators take a more direct route to increasing Climate Change. In 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic added more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – equal to the pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants, according to a 2019 report by Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.”
Subsidizing Our Extinction
A 2017 report by Oil Change International states that U.S. taxpayers pay for more than $20 billion in fossil fuel subsidies each year by incentives, credits, low royalty rates, and other government measures benefiting the industry. Campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures come to $350 million. This clearly funds Climate Change. We’re paying for our own destruction. It’s bad enough that fossil fuels are used to produce energy. But producing plastics with them puts toxic chemicals in contact with life, reducing our viability life force, causing all manner of disease, deformity and psychological afflictions.
Most plastic activists presently claim they’re “working with industry” to reduce the toxicity of plastics. That’s a near impossibility and it’s just another corporately-formed committee that will never reach consensus or solution. They also claim humans “need plastic.” But humans lived without it for 200,000 years. We most definitely can live without it now. But like spoiled children, we just don’t want to. We’re addicted to it in spite of its existential threat of Climate Change. Breaking an addiction with something as entrenched into society will obviously be difficult. But like the saying about aging, it’s better than the alternative.
In the case of plastics, one cannot produce a material that’s more than 99% fossil fuels and expect it to be both nontoxic and not effect Climate Change. If its production continues, it will continue to exacerbate Climate Change, contaminate all life and go where it isn’t wanted. Therefore, logically, it must be halted. Even among nonprofit environmental organizations, this opinion is wildly unpopular. But it is a logical path forward if we want to survive. Nothing less than an immediate, drastic and unprecedented change in the way we all live will suffice. At this point in time or in the near future, there are no other alternatives that are realistically available. It is a question of survival. A true existential dilemma. Are we truly stuck in a place where the stuff we need to survive is killing us, or can we make changes in our culture that benefit all?