Stop and think about oil for a minute. Not motor oil but crude oil. The stuff that comes out of the ground.
What is it? It’s a yellow to black liquid found under the ground and under the oceans. It really is nothing more than long chains of carbon atoms that are arranged in various ways to make molecules of hydrocarbons.
This substance, known as oil, petroleum, crude oil and Texas gold (known for the rest of this article as just oil) is the very foundation of our modern society. Think for a minute what we get out of it:
- Energy (electricty, liquid fuel (gasoline, desiel, heavy oil))
- Lubricants (motor oil among others, greases)
- Alkenes (base for plastics and other items)
- Wax (candles, lubrication, crayons, other products)
- Sulfur (for industrial production)
- Asphalt (for roads)
- Aromatic petrochemicals (used to make other chemicals)
- Fertilizers (agriculture)
- Industrial Ammonia
- Printing Inks and paints (less so now with soy based inks)
Now stop and think about one specific item that comes from oil. Plastic.
Plastic is everywhere and it is derived from about 7% of a barrel of crude oil. Plastic is just as important to our society as oil based fuel/energy. Everything in our lives is due in some part to plastic. Think about it –
- All electronics are either encased in, manufactured with and/or covered in plastic.
- Clothing fabrics like Polyester (the base material to make this is Xylene)
- Cars, trucks, trains, planes, bikes etc all contain plastic in some form for their engines, safety features, cabin construction, electronics etc.
- Homes and buildings – chairs, electrical sockets and wire sheaths, furniture, fans, window seals, door locks, plumbing fixtures, even your toilet seat.
- Product packaging- where would we be without those impenetrable blister packs?
- Bags, bottles, eating utensils, storage containers, packing materials (foam anyone?)
- Medical supplies and instruments- can you imagine if we still used syringes made of glass and metal?
- Communications- that cell phone of yours is mostly plastic!
We are nearly 100% dependent on the products that oil supplies us.
Are there alternatives to oil based plastic? Sure they are now trying to make plastics from corn, but to grow corn we need fertilizer (oil), fossil fuels (oil) for planting/harvesting/transporting and to generate the electricity (oil) to make the polylactic acid from the corn to make the plastic. Notice oil is still very much in the equation?
Sure we can recycle, but to do that we need transportation (oil), processing (oil), remanufacturing (oil) etc, etc.
I’m not advocating one way or another about the uses of oil. We depend on it every day for everything from transportation to medical to entertainment.
I will say that once we find a way to use less oil for transportation fuels the better off we’ll be (Ok, I’ll advocate that we need to use less oil for energy). Fuels use about 37% of a 42 gallon barrel of crude oil. That 37% will allow us to use more of the barrel for our real addiction- plastics.