Issue No3: The World Needs to Quickly Stop Using Fossil Fuels….Not So Fast!

Authors Note: To view the charts, read this article on a large screen.And, if you’d prefer to listen instead, click on the green arrow above.

My goal in writing this series is to inject a much-needed reality check into the transition process as we move away from fossil fuels. We need an orderly energy plan that ensures that we are not dependent on oil or natural gas imports from anyone, while working concurrently on an accelerated plan to build-out the needed renewable infrastructure. If you have read my previous issues, you understand the critically important national security implications of continuing down our current naïve path of demonizing our domestic oil/gas industry.

The current Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed how convoluted both our current energy policy is and how important that we quickly re-think it. 1n 2021, according to CNBC, the US imported $4.7 billion of Russian oil and gas, the highest amount in 10 years. It represents 3% of our oil and 8% of our domestic needs. This is absurd! Unfortunately, the US is not alone in demonstrating a lack of reality-based planning. Germany is the latest European poster child for naivete regarding this matter.

Issue No1 dealt with the transportation sector and Issue No2 the electric generation sector. Combined, they account for roughly 70% of total global CO2 emissions.

This issue deals with plastic, a ubiquitous and critically important material that is produced using fossil fuels, primarily oil and natural gas. It is highly versatile, lightweight and can be very durable versus other materials, such as any metal product. It has become deeply entrenched in many large global industries including aerospace, construction, electrical construction products and consumer electronic devices, communications equipment, packaging, energy generation (solar panels, wind turbines), furniture, marine (virtually all recreational hulls are plastic-based), medical and healthcare, apparel, toys, entertainment products, military equipment, and automotive. According to Oilprice.com, plastics production accounts for about 4 percent of global oil production in 2019.

According to Oilprice.com, plastics production accounts for about 4 percent of total global oil production in 2019. For advanced economies like the US, the percentage may be double that amount.

This chart, similar to many others I viewed while researching this issue, demonstrate plastics historic and forecasted growth. I didn’t locate a single forecast that showed either a decline or a flattening of growth. The enclosed circular chart illustrating accumulation will be dealt with later in this issue.

The following chart provides a powerful illustration of the diverse applications and meteoric historic growth. It has shown rapid growth in all of the noted uses, but plastic packaging is the standout performer.

Let’s breakdown the importance of plastic compared to other materials in packaging. The following chart indicates that plastics represent roughly 37% of all packaging applications. The poster child for plastic opponents are plastic bottles and grocery bags, which are part of the Flexible Plastics segment on the chart. Plastic wrap keeps food of all types safer and more conveniently transported/stored. It’s also an important component in residential/commercial construction. Garbage bags provide a convenient and sanitary solution for waste disposal. The US Department of Energy estimates that the use of plastic foam insulation in homes and commercial buildings each year will ultimately save close to 60 million barrels of oil versus other kinds of insulation.

Source: 2012 Food Packaging Forum

Let’s take a quick look at the automotive industry, an excellent example of the Rigid Plastic group. Virtually every component pictured below is plastic-based and was intentionally chosen by the manufacturer for its lower cost, durability and light weight, which in turn lowers the vehicle weight and correspondingly increases the vehicles fuel efficiency.

Ditto for this typical interior. The door panels, seating, dashboard, sun visors, flooring materials and center console are all plastic. Most of the metal looking finishes are plastic as well. Every electric vehicle (EV) is constructed using the same materials. You can’t eliminate the combustion engine and plastic concurrently!

And finally, tires are obviously required in the automotive and aviation industries, as well as, many other industrial machine applications. Tire technology is very complex because of the inherent safety and performance requirements needed in each of the distinct user markets, as well as climate variations in different global regions. Crude oil is the principal raw material in synthetic rubber. Approximately 70% of all rubber used today is synthetic. According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, roughly 7 gallons of oil is required to make each tire. Roughly 2.7 billion tires will be produced in 2022, which will require roughly 19 billion gallons of oil. Unit tire volume is forecasted to continue growing at roughly 3–4% annually.

I’ve addressed the ever-present applications and benefits of plastics. There is however the issue of what the industry describes as “mis-managed” plastic waste. This is a serious global issue and environmental groups; government and the plastic industry have long been working on effective solutions.

Globally, roughly 2 billion people live within 35 miles of the ocean, where a large majority of this mis-managed waste is deposited from. The largest source of global waste is Asia and China specifically. In total, they contribute roughly 70% of this mis-managed waste. Unfortunately, the poorer the local region, there’s a higher likelihood of minimal infrastructure designed to manage this issue. Like all things affecting the planet, every country must look inward for serious solutions.

Currently only 2 of the 7 most widely used plastic groups are widely recycled and another 2 are sometimes recycled, leaving 3 groups that are incinerated, landfilled, or ends up as litter on either the land or in waterways. The industry is very focused on improving their recyclability. In the US, the recycling rate for plastic is 10% (which is pathetic), versus 32% for glass, 17% for wood and 70% for paper.

Like aviation fuel (See Issue No1), there is no known alternative to plastic for all the applications previously mentioned. Understanding this reality, many organizations have studied the situation in depth and provided the best approach to co-exist with plastic in a more responsible way. This is an example.

Virgin Feedstock refers to the resin produced directly from the petrochemical feed stock, such as natural gas or crude oil, which has never been used or processed before. Even this model shows no noticeable change in the production of Virgin Feedstock. Recovered Feedstock, also known as chemical recycling, is the process of breaking down collected plastics into monomers and other basic chemical elements. Recovered Monomer recovery involves unzipping the molecules of selective waste materials back to its original chemical compounds. Both processes are newer but exemplify potential solutions to making plastics more environmentally friendly.

In summary, plastics are here with us to stay. It will continue to morph into new applications as we have witnessed many times over the last 70 years due it’s intrinsic benefits including low cost, durability, design flexibility, light weight and broad accessibility. However, oil and natural gas are essential to being able to produce it. As I’ve mentioned in both of my previous issues, access to domestic sources of both is critical for both cost assurance and national security.

Thanks for reading my article. If you enjoyed it, please click on the clapping hands below. And, if you want to follow me, click on the green button. If you’d like to sign up to become a regular member, it will cost you only $5 per month and provides unlimited access to all the content on Medium. Here’s a link for you to sign up: https://medium.com/@ric62551/membership

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A curious retired American interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625

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Rick Margin

Rick Margin

A curious retired American interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625

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