Here\’s a strange question

So, we know from the Greens that oil is the very devil. And we also know that plastics are the very devil.

The reason oil used to be the devil is because there wasn\’t much of it. Far too valuable to be just burned. And we had to recycle plastics because they were made from that very scarce oil.

OK, so now the green argument has changed. There\’s loads of oil around, far too much in fact. If we burned all the oil we have then we\’d boil the planet.

But are we allowed to keep using this excess oil to make plastics?

Another way of asking this is, well, what are the CO2 emissions from making oil into plastics?

If we really do have too much oil perhaps we can stop with the recycling of plastic?

22 thoughts on “Here\’s a strange question”

  1. So long as a policy is economically impoverishing (as you have demonstrated with recycling), then the Greenies will still be in favour — to them it’s a feature, not a bug.

  2. I thought the argument against plastics was that they aren’t biodegradable and eventually we will have rubbish mountains the size of Everest and there are some nasty toxins involved in the process?

  3. Once calculated, there’s just about enough energy in the plastic bags from a large weekly supermarket shopping expedition to power the average car almost as far as the car park exit if the oil had been made into fuel instead.
    And anyone who thinks ordinary plastics aren’t biodegradable has never had to cope with the problems caused by the biodegradability of ordinary plastics. Try using a binbag to store garden waste for a few months. They’re generally manufactured, fit for purpose & the expensive, non degrading types, used for things like wiring & water pipes.

  4. I bought some cheap Chinese weed blanket (black plastic fibre) that wasn’t UV stabilised, and left it in the sun for a week. It disintegrated.

  5. Recycling plastic is a bit fiddly because you have to separate the two main types.
    Once you’ve done that though, you have “waste” with a positive value because it’s cheaper to use than buying the gunk from the oil refinery.

  6. Too much oil?

    Current annual consumption: 34 bn barrels
    Current reserves: 1,500 bn barrels
    Years to use up reserves: 43
    A guess at total resources: 6,000 bn barrels
    Years to use up resources: 177
    Estimated remaining life of the earth: 7bn years
    Proportion of earth’s life we’ve got covered: 0.0000025%

    (The total resources guess is just that; you may prefer a different number. Most of it is in oil sands and shales.)

  7. Yes, Paul, but on a 7bn year time scale, you’d have to factor in oil deposition as well. All that atmospheric CO2 being locked up in organic material. The plastic in landfill sites, being subjected to millions of years of heat & pressure under successive layers of geology, turning back into oil. On a 7bn year timescale it’d be a closed cycle.

  8. “Yep. Where do you put the waste?”

    The African solution is to burn it to keep you warm in the winter, the stench of burnt plastic around july/August is pretty overpowering

  9. I don’t know what the precise definition of ‘biodegradable’ is, but I do know that I discovered a load of plastic bags my wife had been saving to re-use and forgot about when we moved house a year ago. Reduced to powder, pretty much.

  10. Incidentally, if you look at technological civilisation from an outside perspective, it’s likely that the oil consumption phase is just that, a phase. It’s already pretty obvious long term energy needs are going to come from other sources. Solar PV should soon be economically viable. Energy from nuclear, not necessarily fission, is now & could vastly increase. There’s lots being done in the field of chemical feedstocks other than petroleum based. Plant sourced plastics through GM.
    The real danger is we get stuck on a technological development plateau, soft green policy, or reduced technology, hard green policy. If we lose or exhaust certain capabilities, we won’t be able to recover them because the remaining resources won’t be the easily exploited ones we had first time round. There’s a world of difference between shallow Texas oilfields & going direct to deep water drilling. Nuclear power stations aren’t a cottage industry.

  11. There’s a world of difference between shallow Texas oilfields & going direct to deep water drilling.

    Quite. The salaries are far higher for those involved in the latter. Heh heh!

  12. I hope Paul B’s comment at 8 is tongue in cheek and that he doesn’t think we’ll need to be reliant on oil for 7BN years.

    As they say: The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

    One day plastic may be as anachronistic as flint.

  13. I am uncomfortable with arguments of the form “we solved problems W, X, and Y. Therefore we’ll solve problem Z.” Logically they’re equivalent to “I haven’t died yet, therefore I’ll live for ever”.

    Of course there aren’t enough fossil fuels for us to rely on them for millennia, let alone millions or billions of years. But let’s get the replacements to work before we decide we’ve got too much oil.

  14. “let’s get the replacements to work before we decide we’ve got too much oil”

    But, equally, let’s get the replacements to work before we decide we haven’t got enough oil.

  15. “I am uncomfortable with arguments of the form “we solved problems W, X, and Y. Therefore we’ll solve problem Z.” Logically they’re equivalent to “I haven’t died yet, therefore I’ll live for ever”.

    Strange analogy. The problem of aquiring energy, in a universe so teeming with energy that we could survive on the interest of the interest of the output of our own sun, is hardly a problem equatable with conquering death.

    Even as crap as renewables are today, it’s possible to see how quickly (decades) they could solve almost all our energy needs with the invention of an even half-way decent working fuel cell.

  16. “I am uncomfortable with arguments of the form “we solved problems W, X, and Y. Therefore we’ll solve problem Z”
    As far as our civilisation is concerned, better to be uncomfortable than extinct.
    The fallacy with the soft green, resource conservation fetish is it makes those resources finite. Tim likes to say resources are infinite but that depends on human ingenuity. Greens want to stifle that ingenuity. No matter how assiduously we recycle, it’s impossible to be 100% efficient. You always have to bridge the gap with fresh input & getting that new material gets progressively more difficult as the easier sources become exhausted. Eventually, there will be a point where the technological level will be incapable of extracting what’s needed to top up the re-use cycle. From then on, it’s a slippery slope to a post technology world.
    Timespan? Probably less than a couple hundred years to a pre-industrial society. From then it can only be rapidly downhill. There’s no way to bootstrap back up to another industrial revolution because there aren’t the resources available to do so. There aren’t the easily won ores, coal measures, oil deposits, available first time round. What there is, is beyond the technological capability of the civilisation to reach.
    It really is back to the stone age.

  17. we could survive on the interest of the interest of the output of our own sun

    Millions of years of evolution (and recently, breeding) have given us plants that convert about 1% of solar energy. It’s too diffuse. The universe isn’t really teeming with energy. It’s mostly empty.

    At the moment, fossil fuels or nuclear are the only ways we have of producing concentrated power on terawatt scales. Do I expect something will come up before they run out? Yes. Can I guarantee it? No. But if we can’t, the rational decision now is to proceed hoping we can. Because the end result is the same, but time delayed.

    On your decades timescale though, I’m optimistic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *