Not only is the petrochemical sector one of the blind spots of the global energy debate but also in our current plastic pollution debate. About ten years ago approximately 4% of our world oil production was used as a feedstock to make plastics, and global demand for petrochemical feedstock grew to roughly 12% in 2017.
As the spending power in emerging market economies in Asia soars, so does the demand for plastic, specilly PE, pushing 2018 demand figures to approimately 100 million metric tonnes. 100 million metric tonnes!
The petrochemical industry and plastic manufacturers are celebrating continual growth in the first three quarters this year, and the fact that there is no trend change in sight.
In some cases there is just more money by converting crude oil directly into plastics rather than oil products such as gasoline and diesel, which may explain the increased investments into petrochemical plants.
According to the IEA, the world’s energy watchdog, petrochemicals are expected to account for more than a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, and nearly half of demand growth by 2050.
Drowning in plastic
Considering that nearly every single piece of plastic -if not combusted- is still around since its creation, this year’s addition of 100 MMT of PE is not good news. PE breaks down really, really slowly, or not at all when landfilled.
Now – let this sink in for a minute.
Adding to the above:
- the large share of single-use plastics in general plastic manufacturing,
- a littering behaviour that has increased in parallel with our use of disposable products and packaging
- declining reserves of fossil fuels, and
- the finite capacity for disposal of waste to landfill
paints a dire picture for future generations.
We’re leaving a planet behind that we depleted of its resources, but filled with mountains of waste. Our linear economy, our use of hydrocarbons, via packaging and other short-lived applications of plastic, is simply not sustainable, and government efforts to encourage recycling in order to curb carbon emissions only have a minor impact on petrochemical growth.
It will be a challenge for us, the end user, to change our behavioural patterns and our love-hate relationship with plastics.
Demand regulates supply
Maybe it’s about time we appreciate the power and simplicity of this market law more, and put it into practice.
Abraham Lincoln already wisely noted “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”