Plastics and petrochemicals: facts and myths

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.