There has been a lot of media chatter recently about the world’s collective failure to recycle consumer plastics. Greenpeace may have put the final nail in the plastics recycling coffin with a 2022 report explaining that it doesn’t work and probably never will. Now that society is finally figuring this out, there is a greater question relating to both fossil fuels and plastics: where do we go from here?
An opinion piece published by the Boston Globe in mid-December, 2020 suggested a couple of things that seem to be at the root of the problem. The one this post will discuss is the writer’s assertion that “we can all agree that we need to be getting off of fossil fuels.”
No, we don’t all agree.
A Very Different World
No doubt a lot of people think fossil fuels are one of the worst things mankind has ever created. But not everyone feels that way. Count this writer among the latter group. Fossil fuels are largely responsible for the society in which we live. If we completely eliminated all fossil fuels and plastics from society, we would find ourselves back in the pre-industrial age.
It is all well and good to fantasize about a world free of fossil fuels and plastics, but how many of us would actually be willing to live in that world? Without fossil fuels and plastics, there is no internet. Think about that.
We all enjoy the connectivity and instantaneous information the internet affords. Yet the internet only exists because computers exist. Computers are only capable of doing what they do because of circuit boards made of plastic. There is so much plastic in a typical computer. People do not give a second thought.
Get rid of fossil fuels and plastics and you had better be prepared to give up your cell phone, your streaming device, your waterproof rain suit, and on and on. Be prepared to live in a vastly different world because that is what you would get without fossil fuels and plastics.
Renewable Energy Doesn’t Cut It
Nearly all plastics are manufactured using byproducts from petroleum refining. In other words, the black gold we pull out of the ground has to be refined to produce gasoline and diesel. Byproducts of the refining process are turned into plastics rather than being discarded.
Without fossil fuels, we cannot make plastics. That may be right up your alley. But again, think about life without fossil fuels. Renewable energy doesn’t cut it. It never has. There is a reason that people with solar panels on their roofs still need to be connected to the grid. There is a reason communities powered by wind energy still need to be connected to power plants.
Renewable energy is a nice supplement that allows us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But any energy expert who actually works in the field can tell you that renewables will never be a complete replacement for fossil fuels. So if we are not going to allow nuclear energy, we have to continue burning oil and coal.
Plastics Can Be Recycled
The failure of consumer plastics recycling isn’t due to the fact that recycling isn’t workable. We know it is as evidenced by companies like Tennessee-based Seraphim plastics, companies that successfully recycle industrial plastics day in and day out.
Consumer plastic recycling fails because consumers do not want to put in the effort to do it right. But if we are too lazy to do the work necessary to recycle consumer plastics, what makes anyone think humanity is ready to return to a pre-industrial world before we had fossil fuels?