Depletion of Non Renewable Fossil Fuels and Raw Material Reserves in Production of Plastics

The plastics industry, in common with other industries, utilizes fossil fuel energy and raw-material resources for its operation. The question to consider is if the magnitude of the drain on energy and raw materials by the plastics industry is justified by the benefits plastics offer society. This is essentially a value judgment that involves assessing the marginal utility derived from the use of plastic products (as opposed to substitute products) by the society at large. As shown in Figure 1.8 (based on 1988 data), the energy use by the U.S. plastics industry in relation to the other demands on energy is very small and amounted to about only 3% [29]. About half the energy used by the plastics industry is that contained in the feedstock or raw materials and the rest is energy used in processing. The enormous convenience and the energy savings offered by plastics in a bewildering range of applications easily justify this minimal expenditure of fossil fuel. Plastic products pervade nearly every aspect of modern living and include applications in textile, packaging, and building. About 60% of the feedstock as well as the process energy for manufacture of plastics were derived from relatively cleaner-burning natural gas and only 33% are from coal or petroleum sources.

The fraction of crude oil that is used in the worldwide production of resin amounts to less than 4% of the total global petroleum production [30]. A part of the low-molecular-weight gaseous fraction used for making commodity thermoplastics used to be flared in the refineries before the resin industry started utilizing it. Using this small a fraction36 of the petroleum resource to provide a versatile material that impacts such a broad array of product applications is an impressive achievement.

An interesting example of the economic leverage afforded by plastics is in the commercial fishing industry in which the natural-fiber based fishing gear was abandoned in favor of nylon and polyolefin nets in the late 1940s. The

36 In the United States only 1.5% of the oil and natural gas consumed annually is used in the production of plastics.

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