Plastics and petrochemicals: facts and myths
We live in a world dominated by plastics – almost everything we use in our everyday lives is made of plastic or contains plastic components. Accumulation of plastic waste has turned into a serious environmental problem that is not easy to tackle and will take time to solve.
The intensity of emotions it arouses has been growing faster than understanding of how to get rid of plastic waste with benefit for the environment and the climate. Science and the petrochemical industry have been looking for long-term strategies in which advantages outweigh the downsides. Such strategies need to be based on a proper diagnosis of the problem. However, even though petrochemical production is a fast-growing branch of industry, knowledge of the subject is quite hermetic and its level is rising much slower than emotions. At PKN ORLEN, we have specialist knowledge of petrochemicals: we monitor the latest scientific developments in the area and base our business strategies on their findings. Last year we prepared the report on petrochemicals – challenges, solutions, and the future in order to share this knowledge, because intuitive solutions, such as banning plastic production altogether, are only seemingly beneficial.
Myth. There is good plastic and bad plastic. Good plastic can be found in syringes, bad plastic is used to make disposable bags.
Fact. The distinction between bad (waste-generating) and good (reusable and recyclable) plastic is not based on differences between the types of material but rather on the end products it is used to manufacture and on how those end products are applied. Good plastic is one in the case of which benefits to the public exceed the environmental costs, while bad plastic is the opposite. Polyethylene used in the production of vacuum packaging for meat will be ‘good’ because it will lead to less food being thrown away, which means that less food will need to be produced in one of the most emission-intensive sectors of the economy – cattle breeding. Conversely, polyethylene in a disposable bag will be ‘bad,’ especially when it ends up in the ocean instead of being recycled.
For more information on the use of plastics in everyday life, see pp. 10-12.
Myth. Bio-based plastics (bioplastics) are biodegradable.
Fact. Not every bio-based plastic is biodegradable and not every biodegradable plastic is of biological origin. Bio-PE is an example of non-biodegradable plastic produced from renewable sources. Polyethylene, conventionally produced from fossil resources, can also be made from ethanol, and ethanol can be made from sugar cane, sugar beet or wheat. Ethanol-based polyethylene has exactly the same properties as its fossil-based equivalent, including non-biodegradability. Furthermore, bio-based plastics which are classified as biodegradable do not always decompose in the natural environment. PLA (polylactide, obtained mainly from corn starch and widely used as an alternative to conventional plastic cups and straws) needs a temperature of more than 50°C, high humidity, and the presence of microorganisms to degrade – under such conditions it will decompose in six weeks. However, under room conditions the process will take hundreds of years.
For more information about bioplastics, see pp. 26-27.
Myth. A paper bag is better for the environment than a plastic bag.
Fact. The production of each of those bags leaves a trail of emissions and pollution in the natural environment. According to various studies, a paper bag would need to be used between 5 and 44 times in order to have a lower environmental impact than a single use of a disposable plastic bag.
For more information about alternatives to plastic bags, see p. 24.
Myth. Banning the production of plastics will solve the problem of plastic waste.
Fact. Waste is what we throw away, not what we produce. The solution to the problem of plastic, or in fact any waste, could be its reusing, properly collecting and recycling, i.e. transition from the linear to the circular economy. Responsibility for plastic waste lies not only with the producer of the plastic (who can reduce emission levels and the environmental impact of its production), but also with the manufacturer of the end product (whose task should be to design the product appropriately), the general public (who should demand only ‘good’ plastic), and local authorities (who should put in place appropriate waste collection and selection systems).
For more information on the circular economy concept, see pp. 32-33.
Myth. We can live without plastic.
Fact. The invention of plastic facilitated emergence of many technologies which are essential for modern civilization. Without plastics, the developments in the field of electronics, for example, would be completely different. The use of plastics affects more than just the visual appearance of our home electronics – it also ensures their safety because of electrical and thermal insulation, as well as quiet operation. Thanks to plastics, electric and electronic devices are lightweight and portable. Plastics also made it possible to create e.g. printed circuit board (used in assembling electronic components) and CDs.
For more information about living without plastic, see pp. 24-25.
Myth. Plastics obtained from bio-components instead of petroleum are more climate- and nature-friendly.
Fact. The use of bio-based feedstocks limits emissions of greenhouse gases in the full life cycle of the product, however bio-chemistry has a serious drawback of generating environmental costs in other areas (mainly soil and water pollution). Plastics made from bio-based feedstocks do not solve the problem of waste, either. Bio-chemistry is a transitional solution, which may be useful in the energy transition period when the availability of ‘green energy’ is limited. However, technological progress opens the way to thinking about zero-emission petrochemicals, based on the use of renewable energy and CO2 capture and use (CCU). Moreover, the production of first-generation biocomponents competes with the production of food: the larger their production, the greater the probability of reduced food supplies. So by switching to first-generation chemicals, we only substitute one social problem for another, and a more serious one: hunger.
For more information on bio-based alternatives to everyday items made of plastic, see pp. 27-28.
Myth. Petrochemical production based on crude oil has no future because of pollutant emissions.
Fact. With the development of civilization, the demand for and the share of materials derived from crude oil and natural gas has been growing. Oil and gas are two widely available commodities that we can extract from underground deposits and process into usable products in a way that is less harmful to the environment and climate than is the case with other raw materials. Oil and gas are too useful to be given up. Given the current state of technology, oil and gas cannot be replaced by anything more environmentally friendly to produce the amount of materials needed by humans.
For more information on the future of petrochemical production, see pp. 34-39.