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Marina Schwarz

Big Oil and Plastics Bans

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From the FT:

"Some of the world’s biggest energy companies say a backlash against plastics will not derail the industry’s big bet on petrochemicals, as traditional oil groups seek new revenue sources amid expectations of a shift away from fossil fuels.

Companies from Royal Dutch Shell to Saudi Aramco are funnelling billions of dollars into petrochemicals complexes as they bank on growing demand for the materials used to make items such as plastic packaging, washing detergent and home insulation.

But a public outcry in Europe over plastic pollution in oceans has led to unprecedented measures to tackle waste, including a ban on single-use cutlery, plates and straws.

John Abbott, downstream director at Shell, who oversees the company’s refining, marketing and petrochemicals divisions, said even if all one-time use plastics were eliminated globally it would only reduce demand for chemicals by 3-4 per cent.

“Is it an important issue? Yes. Is it a societal issue? Yes. Do we need to address it? Absolutely. But it’s not going to significantly impact our view of the supply and demand fundamentals of chemicals,” he said in an interview.

Mr Abbott said that while single-use plastics would “inevitably” be banned, proper waste management was just as important for preventing marine debris."

How does waste management fit in with new plastics production? And yes, I know there's thousands of other oil-derived products that Big Oil is investing in but will it be enough to sustain the good fundamentals?

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There are two common approaches to waste management of plastics, particularly so-called "single use" plastics. These are:  collect in a segregated waste stream the single-use material, for recycling by reprocessing into compatible pellets for use directly or by mixing with virgin materials to mold or fabricate new items;  and (2) to incinerate the material together with other material in a mass-burn "trash to energy" boiler, where the heat of combustion produces steam for power generation.   (The third approach is banning, the approach favored by the eco-lunatics; the fourth approach is individual washing and casual re-use, indefinitely; the fifth approach is landfilling together with other waste streams.  Presumably there are others.)

{Plastics re-processing is easily done and suffers only from a high labor input.  The plastics require segregation into styrenics, or polystyrene materials (labelled "PS");  into High Density Polyethylene, or HDPE; into Low Density Polyethylene, or LDPE; into polypropylene, in which there are various grades of density; and into the polyethylene terephthalate bottles, known as "PET".  Once you get everything segregated, then you grind the stuff up in granulators and extrude the material and pelletize to make a nice usable plastic resin. 

All of this costs labor and thus money, and it starts to fall apart when there is too much material for the market to absorb.  So another approach developed by industry is various "miracle binders" that allow mixed plastics to be bound together into some new, combined material, which while having limited uses has the advantage of absorbing vast quantities.  The classic is a substitute for wood, or "plastic planking," used typically on various "boardwalks" or promenades along seashores, which are harsh environments.  One new avenue for vast consumption would be the construction of bicycle-ways parallel to rural roads, which bicycle tourists would ride on instead of the street.  Rural roads tend to be narrow with very narrow  (less than 1 ft) or non-existent shoulders, narrow and restricted bridges, limited sight-lines on curves coupled with rock-faces or other obstacles for lateral clearance, and other hazards.  The upshot is that every year a number of sport cyclists are mowed down and killed by auto drivers, who typically drive far to fast for conditions on these sub-standard rural roads. 

However, picture a set of parallel (and slightly elevated) bikeways constructed on posts and a sub-frame, with a suspended bikeway roadbed.  Now the bikes are separated from traffic and the sport or tourist cyclist is unhampered by the great unwashed of motorists, the yahoo contingent that drinks beer while speeding along. You could consume all the waste plastics of the planet building these bikeways, and as thick plastic planks bolted to the subframe it needs lots of material!  So there is a new and vast growth industry that accomplishes two good things: removal of plastics on the cheap from the waste stream, and construction of a valuable societal good.  [Will that get done?  Nah.  Costs money. Those State Transportation Departments prefer to buy more asphalt.) 

Incineration of the material together with other collected waste in mass burning "waste to energy" plants is now a well developed and mature technology.  It accomplishes the purpose of removal at low cost and develops a product that can be sold (electricity). However, the techniques for removing combustion products, and some are nasty until dispersed and diluted, is a problem, one seized upon by the eco-lunatics and which prevents, mostly by interminable litigation, the adoption of these technologies in the USA and Canada (and, I suspect, also in Europe).  However, waste to energy, as is the case for molecular binding into plastic wood, completely eliminates the issue of marine contamination, as when the material never reaches the sea, it cannot break down into those little pieces and flakes that are entering the marine eco-system and causing so much damage. 

Another approach, one which I personally also favor, is the taking of giant ocean oil tankers, the big stuff, that are ready to be scrapped, and retro-fitting them with bow doors and booms and an internal set of motorized conveyors and drains that pull the material out off the surface of the Pacific Gyre and the Sargasso Sea and either burn on deck or grind up and make ready for some further processing. If you burn the stuff at sea then the contaminants are widely dispersed but at least you have the crud out of the ocean.  As it has no proprietary value this would be a project of Government, or at least financed by Government.  The amount out there is staggeringly vast, and yes, unless dealt with it will continue to seriously degrade the oceans, so time to get with the program!

Edited by Jan van Eck
typing error
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