What Will We Do When The Plastic Runs Out?
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.