Measured Against Reality

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What Will We Do When The Plastic Runs Out?

We’re running out of oil. Everyone knows it, and when most people think about they imagine a world without gasoline, without diesel fuel, and without oil to heat their homes. Granted, these are all problems, but there’s another one, just as big, that’s less commonly discussed:

What are we going to do about plastics?

Almost all of our plastic comes from petroleum byproducts. The following is a partial list:

  • Polyethylene, the most common plastic that’s found in grocery bags, shampoo bottles, toys, even Kevlar vests. Anything with the number 1 in the recycling symbol is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

  • Polyvinyl chlorate, PVC, is in everything. It’s your plumbing, it’s in your raincoat, and it’s in medical equipment. Chances are if an object ever touches water, it’s got some PVC in it.

  • Polypropylene is a hard plastic, used in food packaging, reusable containers, loudspeakers, and automotive parts.

  • Polystyrene is the plastic in Styrofoam, as well as biomedical research equipment and explosives.


Looking around my desk, the only objects I see that doesn’t have some kind of plastic in them are made entirely of metal. Notebooks, books, pens, the laptop I’m using to write this, all of the cars I can see out of the window, nearly everything uses plastic. Without plastics, our lives would be much more difficult.

Fortunately, as with the impending energy crisis, scientists are working on alternatives. One possible replacement for petroleum is common sugar. Unfortunately, as with energy, while petroleum remains cheap alternatives aren’t being as vigorously pursued as they could be. The problem with plastic is even more dire, as it receives relatively little attention, despite being an absolute necessity in our modern world.

How will plastics fare when the oil wells run dry? It’s hard to say at this point. There are certainly other ways to synthesize them, and most can be recycled. But without intense research, we might not be able to do either effectively enough to meet our needs. On the other hand, all we need to find is a way to synthesize the polymers from something other than petroleum, which is within our reach. From there, ramping the process up for production would just be a matter of time.

Our distant future may find plastic in short supply, a precious commodity. Or it may continue to be cheap, strong, and durable: a staple of modern living. Only time will tell.

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8 Comments:

  • Chicken Little strikes again! At $60 a barrel, there is plenty of oil out there!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:51 PM, October 18, 2006  

  • "Chicken Little strikes again! At $60 a barrel, there is plenty of oil out there!"

    Oil is a finite resource, so your argument is illogical. You must be a christian.

    By Anonymous Matt, at 5:49 PM, October 23, 2006  

  • matt,
    What worries me more than this plastic problem is the fact that people like you would consider any illogical person a Christian. If you are saying that believing there is a higher being is illogical, then you are the one in the wrong. Almost every religion believes in a higher being, so why rip on Christianity. And, if you are so narrow-minded to not see that there must be a God, then you are the one being illogical.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:53 AM, March 28, 2008  

  • I think it is brilliant that the only thing that anyone can think to write in the comments section is on how to undermine each others belief system.

    To be frank i couldn't care less what religion any of you are the fact of the matter is that what Matt had to say is valid (apart from the christian part which is never here nor there).

    We are involved in a worldwide love affair with plastic which is going to be cut prematurely short if we don't act to find alternatives.

    Oil is running out because we use it faster than it is naturally being produced. Plastics are predominately made from oil and its derivatives. finally we recycle only a very small percentage of the plastic produced and so most of it gets used once and thrown away.

    We are finding alternatives from natural sources such as starch and sugars however no real push towards these will be made unless we demand them. Call me cynical but i can't see that happening any time soon.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:41 PM, March 31, 2009  

  • Considering this was posted 5 years ago, and I'm yet to see sugarplastic on the shelves, Matt was right. But of course, we've still got oil hanging about.

    By Blogger Claire, at 9:09 AM, March 13, 2011  

  • Actually Claire you may have spoken too soon. Pepsi have come up with the solution http://aireater.com/2011/03/17/pepsi-to-make-first-all-plant-bottle/

    By Blogger Mat, at 11:58 AM, March 21, 2011  

  • I think that this information is really important to the people who work in the agriculture, some extra important thing is that Water can also be a by-product when a reaction causes carbon dioxide.! I really like it , thanks for sharing!22dd

    By Anonymous viagra online, at 12:47 PM, April 25, 2011  

  • I think that we should start thinking of a solution to all of our plastic problems because eventually we are going to run out and we need to get ready for that time. We might not be ready for when that time comes because we rely on oil so much to produce most of the things that we use every waking day of our lives.

    We are going to be in for a rude awakening when we run out oil. We aren't going to know what to do about this whole situation when it happens. Thank god that scientists are starting to work on figuring out how to use less plastic. Like Anonymous said, "We use oil faster than it is being produced." We can only use so much of it at one time.

    Oil can only be produced so fast. And we are using oil for most of the things thatwe use throughout our daily lives. If we don't start thinking of new ways to start using less oil in the world we are going to be in big trouble.

    By Anonymous Nick, at 5:30 PM, January 23, 2012  

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