A future of diminishing petroleum resources will serve as a stark contrast with our generous oil-based diet today. A nonrenewable resource with limited reserves accessible with today’s technology and facing accelerated global demand, oil will continue to become more expensive in the long-term—it’s simply a question of how much and when.
In February, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the National Building Museum (NBM) about “Life After Plastic.” This provocatively titled discussion was part of the series, “For the Greener Good: Conversations That Will Change the World.” Scott Kratz, the NBM’s vice president for education, prompted the discussion with the following provocation: “Many believe that, as petroleum-based products, plastic building materials will become more expensive as the price of oil rises. What is the future of alternate products for the construction industry?”
For a glimpse into the possible outcome of a world with less oil, just ask Jeff Rubin, author of Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization (2009), or Christopher Steiner, who wrote $20 per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise of Globalization Will Change Our Lives for the Better (2009). Oil shortages will not only affect the cost of fuel, but also that of plastic. What comes next may not be so much a life after plastic, but rather a transformed life with plastic. This reality anticipates three general responses to a reduction in virgin petroleum-based plastic: one, enhanced recycling streams for existing plastics; two, the increased development of bioplastics, which are derived from renewable resources; and three, design-focused material optimization.
Plastic’s ease of fabrication and low cost have made it a popular material for consumer products as well as automotive, aerospace, and architectural applications. The combined annual production weight of bulk commodity polymers—polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, polypropylene, and polyethylene terephthalate—is nearly the same as that of steel. These petroleum-based plastics are considered technical nutrients, or materials that have been processed to the point that they are no longer biodegradable, but which may be collected and recycled within closed-loop manufacturing cycles. Unfortunately, the closed-loop idea remains an ambitious goal, as less than 10 percent of the current supply of these polymers is recycled. But a permanent jump in oil prices would most certainly improve plastics recycling, especially since recycled polymers require less embodied energy than virgin polymers for their manufacture.
Recycling can improve the utilization efficiency of a resource, but what about increased demand? Companies such as NatureWorks and Soy Works Corp. plan to meet this demand with bioplastics derived from renewable resources such as corn and soybeans. The main biopolymers in production today are polylactide (PLA), a plastic produced from the lactic acid found in corn or milk; and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), plastics derived from the bacterial fermentation of sugars in soy, corn, or palm oil. These plastics are primarily used for disposable consumer packaging and containers, although they are being developed for more permanent uses. Bioplastics research is currently focused on the development of feedstock from inedible substances such as cellulose, so as not to compete with rising food demand.
While plastics recycling and bioplastic production will help offset rising oil prices, we can also be smarter about how we use polymer feedstocks in the first place. A shift from the production of massive quantities of disposable goods, such as plastic grocery bags, to the manufacture of fewer long-lasting, higher-quality, reusable items would require a welcome shift in consumer and manufacturer expectations. Such a shift would invoke the power of design to conceive desirable products that would facilitate this transformation. There is room for policy in this effort, too: Consider efforts in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to curb the distribution and proliferation of plastic bags as pollution. Design-based material optimization could have huge economic and environmental benefits. And as Steiner told one interviewer, “The opportunities for inventors in a world with less oil will be prolific.”