The surprising role of plastics in the oil and drilling industry

oil refinery

Although environmental agencies have tried to raise awareness both of climate change and plastic pollution, the two are usually treated as separate problems. But what few people know is that plastic pollution is not only a matter of waste, cleanliness, and sea life preservation. In reality, plastics are linked to climate change. In the past two decades, the global demand for plastics has doubled, which might have helped the economy, but it had dramatic consequences for our planet. For example, in the US (which already produces more plastic per capita than any other country), most throwaway plastic packaging ends up overflowing landfills. But it can take up to 500 years to decompose, and, in the meantime, it releases toxic pollutants in the soil, which then end up in crops, are eaten by animals, and ultimately end up on our plate. If you threw away a plastic toy when you were little, that toy is probably still in a landfill today. 

In oceans, the situation is even more dire. It is estimated that over 8 million tons of plastics end up in the oceans every year, making up for around 80% of all marine debris. If we don’t take action, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. It may sound scary or implausible, but that is where we are headed.

So, what does this have to do with the oil and gas industry? 

First of all, lots of plastics are by-products of fracking. Low-cost plastic is produced from ethane, which is a by-product of the crude oil extracted from the ground. It didn’t always use to be this way. In the past, the raw materials used to make plastic were more expensive, but when fracking became increasingly popular in the US, companies realized that they could also manufacture plastic packaging for next to nothing. But the problem with these cheap plastics is that they’re extremely hard to recycle. Most of it ends up in items such as packaging films, which are rejected by many recycling centers. We even have a name for it: frackaging. 

Frackaging is particularly dangerous because its entire lifecycle is incredibly energy-intensive: they require a lot of energy when ethane is extracted, when they are processed, transported, and ultimately recycled, if they even get there. Every year, this process gives off as many emissions as two hundred coal power plants, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the effects are already starting to be felt in the quality of the air we breathe and in fluctuating global temperatures. 

To stop global warming before it’s too late, humanity needs to cut CO2 emissions by 45% in the following nine years, but the existing plastic might prevent us from doing that. The plastic that has already been released into the environment continues to decompose unless it’s recycled, but studies show that, in the US, only 9% of plastic waste ends up being recycled. 

The picture isn’t as dire across the globe. Other countries, such as Sweden, have found solutions for hard-to-recycle materials. For example, compressed expanded polystyrene (EPS6), which is used in transportation, is a type of cellular plastic that can now be recycled with an EPS machine, which not only reduces its impact on the environment but also boosts profit. 

Currently, there are few facilities that recycle “frackaging”. That’s because they’re not exactly cheap to set up, and there’s not a high demand for it, although it can be reused, like many other plastics. 

In the following years, the widespread availability of electric vehicles could create additional challenges. As electric vehicles are becoming cheaper, easier to find, and more autonomous, the demand for petrol-powered vehicles is falling. Oil and gas companies now have to adapt and, in the future, it would not be surprising to see them use excess fuel to make plastics. But if we don’t have an infrastructure in place to recycle those plastics, then pollution could become an even bigger problem, and, ultimately, that could fast forward climate change.

According to one estimate, carbon dioxide emissions from plastics could triple by 2050, and the growing plastic production might have a major role in that. What is even more worrying is that many plastics produced during fracking are sent directly to incineration and that releases tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Additionally, fracking is highly dangerous for the environment. Fracking gives off methane, a greenhouse gas. The more we produce methane, the more obvious its implications become. For example, studies have shown that, in just twenty years, methane can trap up to 84 times more CO2 in the atmosphere than CO2. And it doesn’t stop there. To operate the drilling equipment, we need fuel. In total, the entire process produces incredible amounts of CO2. For example, in 2015, the US produced over 10.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent to the emissions given off by 2 million cars. To add to that, an extra 5.9 million tons of CO2 were produced by incinerating plastic by-products, which is the equivalent of heating 680,000 homes.

What can we do to stop carbon emissions from plastics?

Plastic pollution is a complex issue that can’t just be solved overnight, and the fact that it’s intertwined with the oil and gas industry makes it all the more difficult to address. But, even though they’re not simple to implement or follow through on, solutions do exist.

For example, one goal is to cut the use of petroleum-based plastic packaging by half by 2030 and then slowly phase it out by 2050. This would enable us to keep carbon emissions under control. But, in order for it to work, non-essential petroleum-based plastics should also be removed, and, instead, we should replace them with eco-friendlier disposable plastics. 

Ideally, experts talk about replacing plastic packaging with biodegradable materials such as corn starch, but an extensive study on their feasibility in the industrial sector hasn’t been conducted yet.