Is It Worse to Burn Oil or Turn It Into Plastic?

And more questions on the future of plastic and the environment

Credit: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

How much plastic is there in the world?

An estimated 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced so far. Of this, 5.4 billion tons has been chucked into landfill or scattered onto land and sea. To get a sense of what this looks like, if all of this plastic were made into cling film it would be more than enough to wrap the whole planet.

The world is now producing over 400 million tons of the stuff every year. That is more than ever before, despite the sudden rise in awareness of the environmental problems associated with it, like the move to ban plastic straws. Of all the plastic ever made, less than a third is still in use, less than a tenth has been burned, and only about 7% has been recycled. This leaves the remaining 60% hanging around as rubbish.

When trash gets landfilled, at least you can argue that the carbon is going back into the ground where it came from and where it belonged all along. From a climate change perspective, this could be the best end point.

An estimated 4 to 12 million tons per year ends up in the sea, where it turns up on the world’s remotest beaches, on the deep ocean floor and in the stomachs of animals. It sometimes even finds its way back into our food chain where it can be found, for example, in a third of the U.K.’s caught fish. One of the most depressing aspects of humankind’s blind destruction of the natural world has to be the realization that these tiny bits of plastic will be there forever, more or less. Thousands of years from now, a microscope on a pristine beach will still find the little grains of man-made multi-colored sand that we have unthinkingly laid down over just the last few decades. No amount of cleaning will sort that out. And the amount in the ocean looks set to triple over the coming decade from around 50 million tons to around 150 million.

If just one year’s worth of today’s oil production were turned into plastic, it would almost double the total amount that there is in the world.

What do we use it for?

Over a third of all our plastic is used for disposable packaging. To look on the plus side, recycling rates have gone from an all-time average of just 9% to nearly 20% today. But to look on the negative side, this is still pitiful and the growth in recycling rates has been dwarfed by the overall growth in plastic production, so that the amount getting chucked out every year is still going up not down.

Is fossil fuel better burned or turned into plastic?

Hobson’s choice! Ideally it would have stayed in the ground. Landfill, for all its other problems, at least puts it back there.

If just one year’s worth of today’s oil production were turned into plastic, it would almost double the total amount that there is in the world. This sounds like a crazy notion, but already there are signs of oil companies looking to sell more of their wares to plastics factories, as the world slowly gets to grips with the need to not burn fossil fuels. However serious climate change might be, shifting from CO2 to plastic waste is even worse. So if you know someone who is proposing this business strategy, please call it out for what it is: poison.

So what are the alternatives?

In the U.K., shops are starting to offer zero packaging food, with shoppers bringing their own containers. Waitrose supermarkets are even experimenting with the concept. Where food packaging is required, paper may sometimes have a higher carbon footprint but it also has the huge benefit of biodegrading. Where transparent films are required, degradable cellulose products are now available.

For protective transport packaging, there is little excuse these days for expanded polystyrene (ie. Styrofoam) rather than molded blocks of recycled paper and card, and for postage, shredded paper is as good as bubble wrap.

Seven percent of plastic is for transportation — mainly the manufacture of vehicles. This may actually be worth it since the environmental benefit of lightweight durable materials is very significant and the good news is that it should be entirely possible to salvage all vehicle plastics for re-use, recycling, and careful incineration.

The alternatives for clothing and other textiles are natural fibres such as cotton, linen and hemp. Here there are trade-offs, because the environmental burden of cotton production, including the water footprint that has all but dried up the Aral Sea, is enormous. And synthetic fibers can have benefits in durability, ease of washing and drying, and performance. The best option is often going to be to steer towards high-quality durable products, look after them, repair them when they need it, pass them on when you’ve finished with them, and ensure they are recycled at the end of their lives.

In the construction industry, glass and natural fibers such as sheep’s wool can be used for insulation. Low-grade recycled plastic can be used as construction materials, and this is fine as long as care is taken at the end of the building’s life to recycle it or otherwise prevent it from dispersing into the environment.

Where plastic isn’t recycled, clean incineration solves, at least, the problem of waste lying in landfill or being scattered across the land and sea. This means that in the end the fossil fuel from which it originated has been burned as it would have been if were gasoline or diesel, with the same contribution to climate change — but is at least gone from the land and sea.

Excerpted from There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee. Copyright © 2019 by Mike Berners-Lee. Reprinted by permission of Cambridge University Press.

Mike is a Professor at Lancaster University. His most recent book is “There is No Planet B”. He is a leading expert in carbon accounting and metrics.

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