“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.”
— Carroll Muffett, Center for International Environmental Law
Well, here we are. What started two decades ago as, at best, a mixed blessing, could be developing into a full-blown planetary disaster.
Fracking, begun in earnest in the 1990s, allows us to cheaply and efficiently tap into America’s vast shale reserves. Fracking’s supporters claim that it will lead to “complete U.S. energy independence by 2020”; has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs (if we include “auxiliary jobs” in marginally related fields); and, because it has flooded the market with cheap, clean-burning natural gas, is reducing air pollution, including the CO2 pollution that causes global warming.
Fracking’s detractors, including me, see the practice itself as harmful to the environment, causing seismic disturbances and using and polluting huge quantities of water to flush out its fossil fuel products. Some of that toxic water finds its way into natural waterways, polluting them. Additionally, natural gas, although far better than coal, is still a “dirty” fuel — contributing to global warming at a time when our atmosphere is becoming dangerously overloaded with greenhouse gases. Proponents’ claims that gas is a “bridge fuel” between the dirty-coal past and the clean, renewable-energy future might be valid — if we had built that bridge 30 or 40 years ago.
But it is the economics of the fracking boom that may prove to be of larger concern than the relative pollution potentials of its various extracts. Because of fracking, the supply of gas and oil has exceeded the demand, making them cheap. So cheap, in fact, that that the fossil fuel companies that have invested in fracking technology and reservoirs of shale gas and oil have had to slow their rate of extraction, because the operations are not sufficiently profitable. This reduces their return on investment.
What to do?
Plastics to the rescue!
It turns out that natural-gas has two major components: fuels, which we burn, and ethane, a major feedstock for plastics manufacturing. And although fracking has temporarily caused supply to exceed demand for fuel, the worldwide demand for plastics is growing exponentially.
A Guardian study (available online) determined that currently one million disposable plastic bottles are purchased around the world each minute, and that by 2021 their annual consumption will top half a trillion.
So, in recent years, major fossil-fuel companies and other investors have invested $180 billion in U.S manufacturing facilities called “cracking plants” so called because — through an energy-intensive and polluting process — they “crack” ethane molecules to produce ethylene, the feedstock for numerous plastic products, including polyethylene, the principal component of throwaway plastic bottles and bags.
These new facilities will help fuel an estimated 40 percent rise in plastic production in the next decade, overwhelming current recycling efforts and exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis, which threatens to engulf terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
To be clear, there are two general categories of plastics: disposable plastics, designed for short-term, single use; and, “enduring plastics,” designed for long-term, repeated use. Throwaway water bottles, zip ties and plastic bags are examples of the former; tool handles, electronics casings and auto parts are examples of the latter.
And while some plastic industry spokespeople correctly point out the utility and even the environmental benefits of many enduring plastics — we can use them to build lighter cars, insulate buildings and so on — it is the disposable products that ultimately solve the industry’s ongoing supply-and-demand problem.
Fossil-fuel extractors and plastics feedstock manufacturers, often the same entities, have made and invested in their choice — to ramp up supply and expand markets. In upcoming columns, we’ll explore how we can address this burgeoning challenge to the habitability of our ecological house.