Plastics and petrochemicals. Facts and myths.
We live in a plastic-dominated world because almost everything we commonly use is made of plastic or contains plastic parts. The accumulation of plastic waste has reached the dimensions of a serious environmental problem, which is not easy to solve and takes time.
The level of emotion evoked by plastic waste is growing faster than knowledge of how to get rid of it without placing an additional burden on climate and the environment. Science and the petrochemical industry are looking for long-term strategies whose advantages outweigh their disadvantages. The basis is a correct diagnosis of the problem. Only a small circle of people are well acquainted with petrochemistry - a fast-growing industry – and the growth of knowledge on this topic in society is much slower than related emotions.
At PKN ORLEN, we have expertise in this area - we monitor research, on the basis of which we develop our business strategies. Last year, we prepared a report on the challenges, solutions and future of plastics, in which we present expert findings and try to explain that simple solutions such as banning plastics are only seemingly beneficial. Below we describe several myths about plastics and petrochemistry, which we elaborate in more detail in the report.
Myth. Plastics are good and bad. The good ones are used in disposable injections and bad ones are used in the production of disposable bags.
Fact. The division of plastics into bad (generating waste) and good (reusable and recyclable after wear) does not stem from differences between plastics, but rather the end products made from them and how they are used. Good plastic is one whose societal benefits outweigh its costs to the environment, bad plastic - the opposite. The polyethylene used in vacuum packaging for meat is “good” because its use will result in less food being discarded, which also means that less food will have to be produced in one of the most emission-intensive sectors of the economy - livestock farming. Polyethylene in a disposable bag is “bad”, especially when it ends up in the ocean instead of a recycling site.
More on the use of plastics in everyday life on pages 10-12 of the report.
Myth. Plastic of biological origin (so-called bioplastic) decomposes in nature.
Fact. Not all bio-origin plastic decomposes in nature, and not all biodegradable plastic is of biological origin. An example of a non-biodegradable plastic of biological origin is bio-PE. Polyethylene, commonly produced from extracted raw materials, can be made from ethanol, which can be made from sugar cane, sugar beet or wheat. Plastic produced in this way has the same properties as its fossil equivalent, even in terms of its non-degradability. Plastics of a biological origin, which are considered to be degradable, also do not necessarily decompose in nature. PLA (polylactide, obtained mainly from corn, a widely used substitute for commonly used plastic cups and straws) needs more than 50 °C, high humidity and the presence of microorganisms to decompose. Under these conditions, decomposition takes 6 weeks. In room conditions, it will take hundreds of years.
More about bioplastics on pages 26-27.
Myth. A paper bag is better for the environment than a plastic one.
Fact. The production of both bags leaves a footprint in the form of emissions and environmental pollution. According to various studies, a paper bag should be used 5 to 44 times so that its impact on the environment is less than each use of a disposable plastic bag.
More about plastic bag alternatives on p. 24.
Myth. The solution to the plastic waste problem is to ban plastic production.
Fact. Waste is what we throw away, not what we produce. The solution to the problem of plastic (and all) waste lies in reuse, responsible collection and recycling, i.e. in the transition from linear to cyclic management. Responsibility for plastic packaging lies not only with the plastics manufacturer (who can reduce production emissions and its impact on the environment), but also with the end product manufacturer (whose task is to design the product appropriately), the company (which demands “good” plastics) and local authorities (which put in place appropriate waste collection and sorting systems).
More on closed-loop economy on p. 32-33.
Myth. One can live without plastics.
Fact. The invention of plastics has enabled the development of many technologies, without which modern civilization would not exist, for example, advances in electronics would look completely different today. The use of plastic not only determines the aesthetic appearance of our electrical appliances, but also ensures safety through electrical and thermal insulation and quiet device operation. Thanks to plastic, the devices are lighter and portable. Its use also contributed to the creation of the so-called printed circuit board (intended for the installation of electronic components) and CDs.
More about life without plastic on p. 24-25.
Myth. Plastics derived from biocomponents instead of crude oil are more favourable to climate and nature.
Fact. The use of biological material reduces greenhouse gas emissions during the product's life cycle, but biochemistry causes environmental pollution in other areas (mainly soil and water). Even plastics made from biological materials do not solve the problem of waste. Biochemistry is a temporary solution, good in a period of energy transformation, when the availability of “green energy” is limited. New technologies make it possible to consider zero-emission petrochemicals based on the use of renewable energy and the capture and use of CO2. In addition, the production of first-generation biocomponents competes with food production - the more there is of them, the more they are likely to reduce food supply. In this way, one social problem is seemingly replaced by another, more serious one, which is hunger.
More on alternatives to everyday plastic items on pages 27-28.
Myth. Crude oil-based petrochemicals have no future due to emissions.
Fact. Along with the development of civilization, the demand for materials produced from oil and natural gas and the share of these materials are increasing. Crude oil and gas are two freely available raw materials that we can extract and process into useful products in a way that is less harmful to the environment and climate than other raw materials. Crude oil and gas are too useful for us to give up. In the current state of knowledge, crude oil and gas cannot be replaced by anything more environmentally friendly in the production of materials that society needs.
Author: Adam B. Czyzewski, chief economist, PKN Orlen