Plastic Pollution or Peak Oil?

I was over at the RSPB Rainham Marshes last week working on a job tackling invasive species, but I couldn't help notice the plastic waste washing up from the Thames there on the river bank. Over the past few years the problem of plastic pollution, particularly in the world's oceans, has been given a significant amount of media attention but seeing the problem first hand recently got me thinking for a bit.

As a a bit of a environmentalist I welcome any steps which might at least attempt a bit of damage mitigation, but the fact that the plastic issue has suddenly been pushed into the public eye seems a bit odd. When plastic was first produced at the start of the last century, the whole selling point about the material was its non-perishable nature. Plastic waste was always going to be a problem, and sadly its an issue which has gotten worse with time as vacuum moulding made production costs significantly cheaper.

The point I'm trying to make though is that the sudden concern expressed by world leaders, famous ecologists and the media is a bit odd. Plastic pollution in our oceans is not something new. It was being studied in quite some depth throughout the early 90s, but despite the obvious problems that were growing at the time, the world seemed indifferent until quite recently. So what has changed exactly? Call me a cynic, but I seriously doubt that the only issue here is the waste itself, and wonder whether this all has something to do with peak oil - but perhaps not totally in the traditional sense of the term.

The world economy is for all intensive purposes based on oil. In a few thousand years, presuming we don't annihilate ourselves, it wouldn't be surprising if our descendants called this era the 'Oil Age' in the same way we've labelled the Iron or the Bronze age today. After all, the global currency isn't called the petrodollar without reason; but the price paid by the West to carry on using this expensive commodity (and continue our wasteful society) is bringing with it unprecedented levels of debt that has skyrocketed since the 1980s. Domestic supplies of fossil fuels in Western nations consisting of shale gas or oil sands aren't particularly useful for alleviating these problems either given the extraction costs involved, and we've been importing the black gold from predominately Middle Eastern reserves for a century or more. In short, America and Europe have been borrowing cash from China to pay Saudi princes, and we have no means to pay that debt off. The implications for that when that whole system comes crashing down are terrifying.

Whilst the prospect of running out of oil in the medium term is worrying given that every bit of infrastructure is designed around the stuff, we're probably already very close to hitting peak oil, maybe not because of the finite nature of the product but because cheaper energy alternatives are beginning to become viable options. Renewables after all make as much sense economically in the long-term as they do environmentally, but either way if oil demand doesn't peak very soon, oil reserves will, and when that happens global instability will inevitably ensue.

So whats this got to do with plastics, and why would it be important? Well mainly because plastic, a material modern society relies on for manufacturing practically anything and everything, is reliant upon the refining of crude oil or gas and is in almost all cases a byproduct fuel production. Admittedly, only 4% of global crude is used for plastic production and plastics can be manufactured from other more 'sustainable' sources, however given that we are (hopefully) in the midsts of a renewable revolution a significant drop in the production of oil based fuels would to mind at least cause a significant increase in the cost of plastics (currently only 2% of plastics are produced from bio-plastics.) I'm probably wrong, but it could be that in addition to the needs of the environment, the other reason for the current anti-plastic rhetoric is an attempt to force firms to develop better alternatives that can be used in a post-oil society.

Development of biodegradable alternatives to plastic does seem to be advancing nicely anyway, but if they prove to be uneconomical then we may well have a problem. Other options like glass would at first appear a better option, but energy expended in transporting heavier items would negate those benefits (a glass jar constitutes roughly 36% of a product's total weight, whereas plastic is less than 4%.) A world without cheap, sterile packaging would make many food items harder to transport, and inevitably increase spoilage and wastage. With a multiplying and increasingly urban population, any transportation issues make the prospect of feeding everybody on this planet rather more difficult.

The other issue which is seldom mentioned is the hormonal effects of plastics, not only marine life but every organism that comes into contact with the stuff. Given the current decline in Western sperm counts maybe this is the real reason for the sudden alarm, although I'm sure if that were the real reason, we will be hearing very little about it.


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