DAVID KEITH WILLS
The Irony of Praise for Petrochemicals!
Industry-wide praise of the U.S. and global petrochemical industry’s “success” at releasing large volumes of natural gas from shale formations appears to be both a source for celebration and for caution.
That begs the question: what kind of success is it?
On one hand, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” of shale deposits to release the captive gas results in a bounty of cost-reduced gas “feedstock” (the material from which new products are manufactured). That factpromises to level the international petrochemical playing field and allows the U.S. and China to compete with the Middle East. It also enables each region’s plastic productivity to grow exponentially.
On the other, industry analysts predict the resulting surge in valuable petrochemical derivatives will result in quite a significant worldwide surplus by 2020.
What surplus? A global surplus of more than 24 million metric tons (MMT) of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), used to make plastic bottles and clear film food wraps as well as opaque containers for consumables such as yoghurt, milk, cottage cheese etc.
Twenty-four million more tons of surplus plastic? For Centuries, the good Jesuit Fathers drum a simple dictum into their students: “Define your terms!” Surplus is defined as “more than what is needed or used, excess.”
An almost reflex reaction to the idea of that “excess” plastic products added to the global plastic supply is to add it to what might be called the present-day surplus: plastic waste. Today summaries of the world’s plastic refuse problem use 2015 figures: 381 million metric tons produced; 276 million tons of waste; eight million tons dumped into the oceans each year; and a range between 10,000 to 100,000 tons floating on the oceans’ surface waters.
What to do with plastic discard in every form – on land and in the seas – has been a constant controversy for the past few decades.
The petrochemical industry lays the blame on national, municipal and individual inability and/or refusal to properly dispose of used plastics. There is a high degree of truth in that point. Its compounded by China’s refusal to accept imports of plastic to be recycled. From 1992 until January 2018, China took 106 million metric tons of plastics from across the globe, most notably the U.S., Japan and Germany. Other nations such as Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam stepped in to fill the void left by China’s plastic import ban. But, they don’t have China’s capacity and quickly reach their limit.
Its also an undeniable fact from the landscape of litter seen during trip to any beach, down any sidewalk or road,or at public refuse receptacles with trashdumped inches away on the ground.
Still, anti-plastic and litter campaigns are attracting greater citizen and business participants, including fast-food chains that turn away from handing out plastic bags and straws.
Organizations such as the Keep America Beautifulnetwork of state, county and township affiliates promote recycling and organize community to “police up” roadsides and shorelines. Analysts claim over 60 countries have imposed some form of ban or restriction on the use of single-use plastics.
Recent news reports of the pregnant Sperm whale corpse recovered offSardinia’s north shore and the discovery of plastic microparticles in the salt we eat rekindle public concern over the world’s plastic problem.
The gruesome news photos of the dead whale are visually repulsive. What they don’t show is decomposing fetus she’s carrying or the 48.5 pounds of plastic shopping bags, food plates, electrical tubing, fishing lines and nets and packages she consumed that caused both whales’ demise.
In January of this year Dow, Exxon Mobil, Chevron Phillips and Formosa Plastics Corporation plus dozens more joined together to form the “Alliance to End Plastic Waste” and pledged one billion dollars to fund recycling and cleanup efforts. That’s a very impressive “mea culpa” gesture. However, it’s a fraction of the $65 billion they are “investing” to expand U.S. plastics production throughout the Gulf Coast from Texas to Louisiana and north to Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The petrochemical industry newsreleases thatboast of the “success of petrochemical industries across the world” are based on a report issued by IHS Markit, a London-based research and consulting firm that prides itself on offering industries,ranging from aerospace to agriculture to chemicals and energy,guidance to find solutions thatlead to “sustainable” profits and growth.
IHS calls the plastics pollution problem “the most critical issue facing the plastics industry” in large part due to the potential of governments to impose new and broader plastic bans. IHS sees its task as how to mitigate efforts to limit plastic production while at the same time increase the industry’s profitability and growth.
IHS’ understanding of “sustainability” appears to apply only to industry and not to the environment itself. Its tactics ignore the damage from chemical-filled wastewater from “fracking” and shift the blame to government ignorance and popular carelessness for the planet’s being choked to deathby millions of tons of non-biodegradable plastic trash.
Step one in IHS’ technique for dealing with the plastic pollution problem is to explain that regulatory bodies are “often driven by uninformed understanding of the consequences and available alternatives, or an underestimation of the ability of infrastructure to deliver.”Step two is to involve the petrochemical Industry in the discussion of solutions in order to stem efforts to limit plastic sales and use. By stressing recycling, plastic production is kept in play.
Industry spokesmen undercut their own credibility when they make the outlandish claim that polyethylene and polypropylene products “biodegrade naturally, albeit over a long period of time.” How long? For most plastic, 1000 years! Plastic bags? From ten to 1000 years! Plastic bottles? 450 years!
The simplest solution is one neither the petrochemical industry, nor IHS want to hear:Find an alternative to petrochemical-based plastic.
Such technology exists today. Rather than using gas or oil, the “feedstock” for this product is a biopolymer found in the shells of shrimp, crabs, lobsters, insects and the cell walls of fungi. It’s called Chitin.
Plastic films, bottles and containers made from Chitin and its derivatives are not only biodegradable, they trump petrochemical food containers because they improve food safety. Chitin resists the formation of bacteria and fungus.
Biodegradable plastic is not the only product derived from Chitin. It has equally beneficial applications in agriculture, medicine, pharmaceuticals, pollution remediation to mention a few. Crops grow larger and are more productive. It replaces toxic, petroleum-based herbicides and fertilizers. Medical applications help generate damaged tissue and organs as well as provide vehicles to deliver cancer-fighting drugs directly to tumors, bypassing healthy cells and so much more.
Today, the only factor limiting commercial Chitin production is the technology used to extract it from its base materials. Called “pulping,” the traditional extraction technique uses toxic acid and harsh basechemicals that result in environmentally damaging waste water. Pulping is forbidden in the Western Hemisphere. Fortunately, there is an Earth-friendly alternative and it’s headquartered just outside of Richmond, Virginia.
Mari Signum LLC is poised to introduce the world to its new “Chitin Economy” that not only eliminates petrochemicals from numerous consumer products including true, biodegradable plastic; but also, is based on a patented, non-polluting, environmentally-responsible technology.
The Mari Signum process uses a benign mix of Ionic Liquid (IL) designer solvents in a zero-waste, recirculating technology. The Mari Signum process also provides a number of environmental side benefits. Before Mari Signum opened its doors, the shrimp shell biomass from which the Chitin is extractedwas trucked from shrimp processing plants along the coastline to local landfills.
Today, Mari Signum’s affiliate Mari Signum – Dragon Drying, in Vancleave, Mississippi, buys the shells from processors, dries and grinds them into the powder from which Mari Signum’s Virginia plant extracts the Chitin.
Unlike the petrochemical industry’s myopic concept of sustainability, Mari Signum believes everyone including for-profit organizations must understand and support efforts to improve the health and life of the planet, its resources and inhabitants, human and animal alike. That’s “sustainability” as it should be defined.