Peak plastic

Materials scientist Debbie Chacra writes about "peak plastic" -- the moment at which our ability to make plastic (which is made from oil) begins to decline. As Debbie points out, our material world is made of plastic, and it's hard to imagine a post-plastics life.

Plastic is more than just water bottles and Tupperware. If you’re indoors, look around. There’s a good bet that much of what’s in your field of view is made of plastic. Paint. Carpeting. Upholstery. The finish on a wood floor. Veneer on furniture. And that’s before you go into your kitchen, or bathroom, and never mind a subway car or a hospital (disposable, sterile medical supplies, anyone?). Plastic is so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible...

There’ll likely still be applications that really need petroplastic, so landfills will become goldmines. The characteristic drawback of plastic, its stubborn resistance to degradation (‘this plastic bag will still be around in ten thousand years!’) will become a virtue, as it sits unchanged in anaerobic landfills waiting for us to decide that it’s worth excavating and recycling. And one day we’ll do just that–there’ll come a point when the easy, albeit expensive, way to get a particular combination of properties (formability, degradation resistance, sterilisability) will be to dig up post-consumer plastics and reuse them.



  1. Aren’t there plastics made from vegetable oils, corn and the like? I do have a couple of pens, bags etc. that are non-petro plastic. Why can’t that be used instead? (Honest question.)

    1. For truly disposable items, trash bags, pens, shopping bags, I don’t think anyone will argue that they can’t be safely replaced with non-petro plastic. There are however instances where having a petro plastic has it’s advantages. Mostly these are in ‘durable’ goods, or items that need to support variable weights over long periods of time. non-petro plastics are often sold and designed specifically to be bio-degradable. That doesn’t mean that they really are. Often that bio-degradability relies upon exposure to UV from the sun, which means that putting it in a landfill sort of defeats the bio-degradability of the plastic. However a side effect of that is that plastics that have those characteristics are not going to be durable in situations that include high, frequent, or constant exposure to UV. If the plastic case of a TV were made with a UV break-down plastic, how long will it last in an institutional setting, like a Hospital, or an Airport, where lighting is often fluorescent tubes that emit a significant amount of UV?

      1. Well, usable petro plastics weren’t invented over night either. To me this is more like an opportunity to innovate rather than a doomsday scenario.

        1. Agreed. I hate sounding like a libertarian (I am not! I am not! Honest!) but  the one thing we can guarantee is that oil will NEVER run out. Ever. The sun my explode, the universe may wind down, but oil will never run out. Because as the price of extracting grows ever higher, fewer and fewer people want it. 
          This supply-demand process is smooth (on the long term, when we ride out ten or twenty year price fluctuations). So this is one area where complacency is justified. However, panicking can lead to some very bad ideas. So I say…WE NEED COMPLACENCY! NOW! BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

          1. The point of “running out of oil” isn’t that it will literally run out, but that it will cease to be a feasible resource – while we have no feasible  substitute. 

            Civilisations *have* toppled and vanished from the Earth because one crucial resource they couldn’t do without became scarce and right now the mantra seems to be “This won’t happen to us, we simply will invent something when the time is right.”

            That can work, but it is far from guaranteed.

          2. It may not ever run out, but it will reach a point where more and more of the uses we today take for granted (bulk freight inparticular) becomes to expensive to keep doing. Hell, food is “cheap” in part because of petrochems. Not just fueling farming equipment, but also as fertilizer that yield big crops from land that should be near barren. So the problem of peak oil is not so much “boom, it’s gone”, but how rising price for what is left will affect life as we have come to know it. I will claim that the increased cost of basic foods had more to do with the arab spring than anything online. And that came from reduced Russian harvests thanks to bad weather. There is a reason why “bread and circus” is as old as it is…

          3. In reply to retepslluerb and turn_self_off: 
            Yes things will get bad, but it happens gradually (once we step back from the 10-20 year booms and busts). It is true that civilizations have collapsed before, with catastrophic results, but there are at least three fundamental differences now. We have communications technology: we can see things coming and argue about them, as here. We have far greater absolute wealth for the average person (in Europe, increased 50 times in real terms since Adam Smith: we are not helpless peasants any more). And for most of us posting here, we have democracy of some kind. So we are not in the position of the 8th century Maya, or sixth century Asia. We have choices. We have numerous industries just waiting for the price of energy and materials rise high enough so they can step in as viable alternatives. As a proportion of our wealth these solutions are very cheap. It is hard so see how a resource based collapse could happen now: they had little information and no choices, we have plenty of both.

            EDIT: I do concede that a politics based collapse is very possible, and resources may be blamed, but the problem is with our political systems, not the resources IMO.

          4.  enterthestory, compared to medieval peasants, WE’RE the helpless ones.  Do you know how to spin yarn?  Weave?  Garden?  Farm?  make cheese, butter, and bread?  Make beer?  Hunt?  Trap?  Skin, tan, butcher?

            Most of the vast wealth you’re talking about is dependent on availability of cheap hydrocarbons.  Once we lose those the wealth starts degrading because it’s bound up in physical infrastructure and machines (whose operation and maintenance in turn rely on cheap hydrocarbons).  After that, people will probably wish they had the basic life skills and self reliance of a medieval peasant.

          5.  Have we considered the carbon cost of continuing to extract and use hydrocarbons for manufacturing and for energy? Oil sure as hell won’t run out anytime soon (oil sands, oil shales, oil wells dug at deeper and deeper depths in more and more remote places in the ocean, undiscovered or unexploited reserves in places heretofore inaccessible to petroleum exploration) but the energy/carbon cost of getting it out of the ground as it becomes harder to find will rise quite sharply (which we can of course add to the carbon cost of using hydrocarbons at the base of our industry). The state of our environment, not our economy, is what’s telling us we can’t do this anymore.

        2.  Oil is not needed to make plastics – a few steps just need to be replaced or added at the beginning of the process. All that is needed is a source of carbon (biomass, coal, asteroidal material, even CO2), a source of hydrogen (biomass, water etc.), and energy (nuclear, solar, etc.).

          Even after oil is too expensive to use as fuel, it will still be economical to use in plastics – plastics are a much smaller market and much less sensitive to price than fuel. That should give at least a century or two. After that becomes relatively uneconomical, coal can be turned into oil, or used directly as an alternate feedstock.  (Oil has been made from coal for a long time on a commercial basis in countries where outside supplies are cut off.) That should last another few centuries, even millennia if undersea deposits are developed. That’s without even going into the bio-based feedstocks some of which are already being used. If energy is cheap enough, then CO2 could be used , if space has been developed sufficiently, then asteroids.

          There are other factors that are likely to be effective limits on plastic production before carbon / hydrogen / energy sources become too expensive- pollution and risk of chemical plants may become unacceptable, catalysts may become scarce, many minor feedstocks needed for specific types of plastic could become unavailable or uneconomical for various reasons.

    2. corn grown with petro based fertilizers harvested by petro powered tractors, processed by petro powered… well you get the point. 

  2. 10,000 years to decompose?

    I believe that a more accurate scientific consensus ranges from 500 to 1,000 years. Still too long, but a ten-fold misrepresentation of fact is absurd and immediately skewed my distrust and bullshit meter.

    EDIT: Oops, I was thinking of plastic bags.

  3. I would suspect that before landfills are mined, that the Island of Trash in the Pacific is likely to be scavenged. After all, many landfills have been filled, covered over and are now city parks. My suspicion is that people do not like their city parks disrupted for open pit mining.

    1. The Island of Trash is not like a dense flotilla of plastic bottles bound together into a light-blocking raft.  It’s a lot more dispersed with plenty of water between each bottle.

      1. Not even bottles. Best impression i get is that it is a large carpet of plastic particles, with the bigger bits being no larger than coins.

      2. I don’t really doubt you. I do suspect that it’s far from the only option when dealing with the sea. For many decades garbage barges were run out into the ocean 9at least in the Atlantic) and the trash was dumped at sea. It would not surprise me if there is an accessible supply of refuse still on the continental shelf, that may be less expensive to ‘mine’ for plastics than a landfill that’s been ‘reclaimed’ a couple of decades back. And while the Island of Trash may not be a dense flotilla of plastic bottles bound together, it would be interesting to see if something akin to an oil skimmer could collect a usable collection in a week. or if there were a way to drag a shallow net, like a fishing trawler, but with very shallow collecting, and not for fish, to skim a marketable volume of plastic.

        I don’t know, and part of what I don’t know is what the relative costs of collecting and mining are. Would it be cost effective to build a solar powered, arduino controlled (with a gps) skimmer robot to do the trash collection? (And what do you do with the refuse that there isn’t a market for? It’s likely to be frowned upon to put it back where you got it.) Is it feasible to build a collector that collects the plastic, bt leaves the resident sea life?

        1.  I think the scenario of skimming the trash gyre in the Pacific, would be most useful for a city that is right there – a floating city. I need some used oil tankers. Anyone wanna help?

    2.  They don’t like their wells polluted and earthquakes either but fracking is a reality.  Never underestimate the motivating power of greed.

    3.  Sorting and purifying the various kinds of plastic jumbled together in trash will be very difficult, far more difficult than switching to new feedstocks, and that will likely remain true for a long, long time.

  4. Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
    Benjamin: Yes, sir.
    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
    Benjamin: Yes, I am.
    Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
    Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean? 
    Mr. McGuire: Peak plastics.

    1. That was the first thing that came to my mind – our unnatural resources. And I think it was about 40 years ago now.

  5. Cory – typo alert: Chachra (you dropped the second h).

    Rusty – the Great Garbage Gyre is pretty diffuse – not the field of plastic most of us (m’self included) picture. It’s also a loooong way from any center of human activity.

  6. Given the amount of creativity we’ll be exhibiting coming up with an alternative energy source to oil, I think coming up with an alternative to plastic will be a snip!

    1. You base your thoughts on hopeful projections about future creativity?

      I’m thinking past performance is likely indicative of future results here.

      Not that you can actually plan for collapse.

      1. I’m not sure of the intent behind robuluz’s post but I do think that invention and innovation for things of this sort rises to the need as the need arises, and not too much before. In other words, it’s only once the pressure is really on that a solution will be found, because more people will be working hard on it.

        In this case, it’s silly that we aren’t working as hard as we could be on solving these problems. But you can blame short-sighted politicians and corporate overlords for that – neither cares about what happens beyond a year or two from the present, and they control the money and thus what kinds of research get funding.

        That said, I will guarantee you that there are chemical engineering researchers in universities all over the world who are working hard on solutions to these problems as we speak, typically with massive amounts of funding from oil and chemical companies. They’re invisible right now because it’ll be years before anything commercially viable is developed.

        1. It was intended to be an ironic comment higlighting the the comparatively small import of peak plastic compared to peak oil.

          But to add a further level of irony, I am actually optimistic we’ll find a path forward. My money is on fusion, combined with a massive drop in per capita energy consumption, and what would currently be described as a lower standard of living, but need not be.

  7. Plastics can be renewable. Where I live the Erinoid factory made beautiful plastic from milk. It was closed down in 1980 even though it was still profitable. The owner was British Petroleum who I suspect killed it off in order to concentrate on petro plastics. Bakelite could be made from renewable sources. Celluloid is made from cotton but that is one plastic that decomposes and burns too eagerly.

  8. I for one am looking forward to soda companies bringing back the 12/16oz glass bottle six pack.

    1. They use and re-use glass bottles for soda in the developing world because  there’s little, if any, recycling infrastructure for plastics. Still plenty of stuff that comes in plastic bottles though, so it’s a big problem and glass soda bottles only addresses part of it. 

      Essentially-infinitely-reusable glass for bottles seems like a no-brainer to me, and I too hope we see more of it re-taking the place of plastic.

      1. The only downside I see to glass is the weight and maybe direct cost of material.  Those are about the only reasons I can see that alcohol manufactures have started going plastic over the last few years.

  9. Twianto, enterthestory and others: The two paragraphs above are an excerpt from the longer piece Cory linked to at the bottom, in which I argue that oil-based plastics around us will be replaced (likely gradually) with materials made from carbohydrates or other sources. But all materials are chosen for a particular application based on a combination of cost and physical properties. For some applications, it might be worth paying more money to use oil-based plastics (whether for the raw feedstock or by scavenging/recycling). 

    No panic, no doomsday scenario, just a lot of research to find these replacements, more and more of which will become viable as the price of oil rises.

  10. What, seven, eight mass extinction events wiping out over half of all polycellular forms, and then in the last mere one million years, we go from to banging rocks together to IC fabrication. 

    How will life have a chance to (re)volve after the next event?  Our mammalian progenitors never made plastics, nuclear waste, dioxins – poisons that will be in the ground, water and air long after the continents have swapped places.  These wastes were never part of this planet in its entire history, not up until the last 150-200-ish years.

    As nice as this puff-piece is about how 1,000 years down the road we’ll all be so well off from making old lemons into new lemonade, I honestly don’t see us lasting another 10 years.  Not in any biological sense, anyway.

    When the real die-offs start, scrounged plastics will be much more useful as heating fuels than for anything else.

  11. Not sure if it can replace it fully, but i recall reading about a German company that made a plastic-like substance from paper production waste. In particular it had the ability to be injection molded, and would burn like wood once disposed off.

  12. We all have choices.
    “Paint. Carpeting. Upholstery. The finish on a wood floor. Veneer on furniture. And that’s before you go into your kitchen, or bathroom”

    All of these items are in your life because you chose them.
    I look around my house – no plastic/synthetic paint, carpeting, upholstery… only plastic bags.

  13. Take ethanol. Catalytically dehydrate it (sulfuric acid works, there are probably better ways – I am not a process chemist and apparently Debby Chacra isn’t either). Now you have ethylene. You can make all the LDPE and HDPE items you want. 
    Now, that isn’t cost competitive with current petroleum based feedstocks for the same plastics (even with subsidized ethanol), but I bet it would be a damn sight cheaper than mining old landfills for plastic. Keep in mind that even modern plastic recycling (where you don’t have to dig up, clean and sort the crusty bits) is a money loser.
    There are other plastics based on other monomers of course (PETE, polystyrene, polypropylene etc.) but all of these are also derivable from plant based sources (where do you think the petroleum came from?). Styrene is even named after a genus of trees.

  14. This isn’t a revelatory article for anyone who understands what peak oil means. It’s not just that cheap oil is forever gone, it’s that anything cheaply derived from oil is also gone. One could next write an article about peak manufacturing or peak agriculture (if sustained by commercial equipment built and fed with oil), and then even peak tar, but it’s all the same. That’s why peak oil, for those who subscribe to the theory, is so frightening: the broad implications.

  15. Come on, are you serious? “Peak plastic”? Are we really in danger of running out of chemical precursors to polymerize? Because, god knows, there just aren’t enough organic compounds in the biosphere.

    This post sucks for a number of reasons:

    (1) We use WAY WAY too much plastic anyway, we need a lot less of it. The amount of plastic that goes into packaging is ridiculous, and it is 100% unnecessary and bad for the planet. I, for one, am not that worried about having to make do with less of it. The glut of cheap petrochemicals and the permanent, horribly polluting plastics it produces is not a good, it’s a bad.

    (2) Plastic does not get “recycled” in the way you like to imagine. It does not get depolymerized or melted down and turned into new forms. Only a minority of plastics are thermolabile and can be reheated; no plastic is reduced to its components and repolymerized. It’s simply too energy-intensive, and the available components are simply too cheap, for this to be worthwhile. And, for fuck’s sake, do we really imagine a future where we can’t make VINYL without petroleum to do it with?

    (3) There are already plenty of bio-based plastic compounds out there, and there could easily be many more. Hey, you know what? Plants have been polymerizing sugars into durable fibers for billions of years! Check it out. It’s called cellulose.

    Seriously, this post is so bad it makes me irate.

    1. Moreover so very many of the things that are currently made of plastic were not in the past — I’m not talking medieval peasants, but just a few decades ago.  We make toothbrushes out of plastic because it is cheap.  If it were not we could revert to rubber (or wood) like they used to use.  It is not as if the methods that were once used to manufacture goods have been forgotten, they are just (currently) more expensive.

  16. As one who has “mined” a landfill after it was sealed up for 30 years, I can tell you that yes, the plastics were intact–but they stunk to high heaven! Anaerobic digestion in landfills produces trace compounds such as mercaptans and sulphides that are very nasty.  So, odor alone could be a huge barrier to post-landfill recycling.

    Plastics are recycled at much lower temperatures than metals or glass, probably too low to drive off those odor compounds.

    And we’re not just talking about squeamish consumers–this odor is strong enough to trigger a vomit reflex, which would make marketing the products….well…difficult.

  17. I recall reading a short science fiction story back in the mid to late 80’s (story was probably older actually) about a father and son (?) mining for a precious material called “Dragon’s Blood” (I believe that was the term).  By the end it was made obvious that they were scavenging plastic from an old landfill and this was in the far distant future, maybe after an apocalypse.

    Anyone recall this story and its actual name?  I’d love to reread it.

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