“Renewables”, The Environmental Savior of Plastics?

You’ve undoubtedly heard it by now; plastics made “renewable” resources such as (your choice here) sugarcane, corn, beets, food processing plant waste and the like are going to solve all of our environmental problems associated with using plastics.  So don’t you worry about it anymore:  environmental responsibility for plastics has been solved.  Plastics made from “renewable” resources will save the day.

Renewable Parables
Hold it!  Haven’t we heard this before?  History does have a habit of repeating itself.  In pre-historical times man learned with invention of fire that trees burn.  Eureka! He suddenly had what seemed like a never ending supply of wood from trees that he could burn for warmth.  Not much later he found that he could take the wood and fashion it into shelters, creating a mass exodus from caves into more fashionable lodging (the very first housing boom).  He also found out quite by accident that mixing water with wood dust and drying it could produce a product later known as paper; the first “renewable” packaging material.  And the really good news was that trees were a “renewable” resource.  All that man had to do was cut down the big ones and replant with little ones.  Oh, and wait a couple of generations for new big trees.  No wonder that virtually all of Western Europe and the Eastern United States are deforested.

After learning about fire, man learned that under very high heat, sand could melt into molten globules that could be molded into various shapes (he must have learned this at early beach bonfire parties).  Over time glass became the standard for glassware, dinnerware and packaging.  Its raw materials feedstock is a never ending, “renewable” supply of sand, so no environmental problems here.  Oops, forgot to mention that on an industrial scale, glass takes an incredible amount of energy to form.  Also, it’s heavy.  It costs a lot to transport it. It does not have a very good carbon footprint.  Safety?  It breaks.  It cuts people.

Today’s Environmental Solution?
Today, “renewables”, in the plastics sense are plastics that are made from organic sources vs. fossil fuels (although fossil fuels are renewable, in a long term sense).  They are part of a growing cadre of “bioresins”.  Not all bioresins are created equally, though, as you can read in our blog article from February 15, 2011. The focus of our blog post today is “renewable” plastics that are produced from plant products that are chemically identical to fossil fuel derived plastics.  The only difference is the feedstock for the ethylene that is produced.

But shouldn’t a non-fossil fuel derived plastic be enough to satisfy our needs to be green and reduce our environmental impact? Not really.  When we think about the benefits and consequences of use, there is really no difference.  The plastic is the same.  Whether or not plastics are produced from fossil fuel or plant fuel won’t solve our municipal solid waste problem, either. 

Broad claims of carbon footprint reduction by using plant based plastics are true, in only the strictest sense of the word.  Plants take in CO2 and give off oxygen.  The “sequestering” of CO2 is what enables plant based resins to claim to have a positive carbon footprint.  This narrow view of environmental friendliness does not take into account land use consequences, water consumption, environmental impact of fertilizer use, nor the amount of energy used to produce and transport the plastic resin.

A Positive Development that is Part of the Solution
This isn’t to say that plastics made from “renewable” resources are bad.  They are a very positive development and one that should be part of our overall plan to reduce our impact on the environment.  What concerns us most is that focus will be taken away from the real issues at hand, if people are led to believe that “renewables” will solve plastics’ negative environmental image.

We believe that “renewables” are a new and important source of recyclable plastics.  They must be recycled in the same manner in which all other plastics are recycled today.  They will not replace fossil fuel derived plastics just as ethanol has not replaced gasoline for cars.  The truth is there just isn’t enough available economically to use it on a broad scale.  Currently the largest producer of bio-polyethylene, Braskem, is rumored to be oversold at prices that exceed fossil fuel based polyethylenes.  So let’s recognize that “renewable” plastics don’t reduce our responsibility to the environment.  Recycling plastic is still the second most favorable environmental solution, after reuse.  Let’ make sure that “renewable” plastics get recycled and that packages produced from it include recycled content.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.

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