efficiency (slight return)

Decent piece here at the Atlantic on not just plastic, but the necessity of plastics—by which I mean less their necessity to us, “the consumer” (though they have indeed become profoundly necessary, due to their embeddedness in so many of our day-to-day practices), than to their manufacturers, as a way of getting rid of by-products from other processes, and of obeying a more fundamental imperative. Take it away, Rebecca Altman:

When [Union Carbide] started making plastics in the late 1920s, no market was itching to buy them. But the company, in a sense, had to make plastics.

Its new commercial antifreeze, Prestone, was synthesized from natural gas and created a by-product, ethylene dichloride, a chemical that had no practical purpose and so was stockpiled on-site. Quickly, it amassed in unmanageable, “embarrassing” quantities, as one Carbide newsletter later put it. Its best use, the company decided, was in making vinyl chloride monomer, recognized as a carcinogen since the ’70s, but back then a building block for a rascally class of plastics no one had commercialized yet—vinyls.

This isn’t an isolated example, but rather an illustration of how product development often unfolds for chemicals and plastics. For Carbide and other 20th-century petrochemical firms, each product required a series of multistep reactions, and each step yielded offshoots. Develop these, and the product lines further branch, eventually creating a practically fractal cascade of interrelated products. Everything that enters the system, explains Ken Geiser, an industrial-chemicals-policy scholar, in his book Materials Matter, must eventually go somewhere; matter being matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. And so it must be converted: made into fuel, discarded as pollution, or monetized. After many iterations, Carbide arrived at Vinylite, finally made workable by blending two types of vinyls: polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyvinyl acetate.

According to an internal marketing report, Carbide spent years trying to “synthesize” new customers and invent new uses for Vinylite, while a credit department eased the financial burden of adopting it. The company even sent technical teams around the country to teach manufacturers how to use the resin, all with limited success. Celluloid, before Bakelite, and polystyrene afterward, had similar troubles gaining purchase.

Then came ww2, with all the usual Schumpeterean creative-destructive opportunities for new materials and products, which let them get a toe-hold. Then came the post-war boom, and that production capacity had to do something with itself… which is why the literal evangelism of plastics (whether in particular forms or as a general category of materials) was so well established that it could be deployed as the famed career advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character by the time they filmed The Graduate.

But there’s a kind of spiral logic involved in all these sorts of lock-ins, and it has to do as much with the economic conceptualisation of efficiency, which regular readers may recall has been bugging me for a while, and which is a major plank in a chapter I’m working on at the moment. Put very simply, economic efficiency is nothing to do with being frugal or sparing with resources, but rather maximising their throughput: a resource left unexploited is money left on the table (or, in the case of fossil fuels, left under the ground). Altman explains how this plays out in the must recent season of the plastics saga:

But the nature of petrochemicals issued its own economic imperative. Plastics had to be a high-volume product to recoup the substantial capital investments necessary to build and then operate such complex facilities, among the largest, most expensive, and most energy-intensive in the process and manufacturing sectors. Yet again, the same problem: more plastics that need more uses and more markets.

The U.S. “fracking boom,” or what’s been called the “shale revolution,” has fueled plastics’ most recent expansion. Fracking has made the U.S. the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, resulting in “a glut,” Kathy Hipple, a senior research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute, told me. This oversupply of feedstock drove another round of investments in plastics plants, which in turn, Hipple explained, has forced an excess of plastic packaging onto the market—more than demand can absorb. These plastics, now primarily polyethylenes and polypropylenes made from natural-gas liquids, have reduced polystyrene to a minor player in the packaging and disposables market—about 2 percent. Tongue in cheek, I’ve taken to calling plastics’ latest output “frackaging.”

But the economics of plastics is once again changing. As energy and transportation shift away from fossil fuels, plastics seem to many oil and gas producers like one of the few opportunities to keep growing, to keep going. Some new “mega-plants,” such as China’s Zhoushan Green Petrochemical Base, convert crude oil, rather than refinery by-products, directly into chemicals and plastics.

And this is (partly) how plastics would come to produce a greater share of the world’s carbon emissions. Should U.S. plastics production continue to grow as the industry projects, by 2030, it will eclipse the climate contributions of coal-fired power plants, concludes Jim Vallette, the lead author of a new Beyond Plastics report. Or, by another measure, the current growth trajectory means that by 2050, the industry’s emissions could eat up 15 percent, and potentially more, of the global carbon budget. How much varies by feedstock and type of plastic, but on average, 1.89 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents (a composite measure of greenhouse gases) is produced for every metric ton of plastic made.

Now, the point often gets made—and fairly, too—that there’s a whole bunch of stuff for which we need to use plastic, as no other extant material can be used for the same applications. This is why exhortations to completely abolish all fossil fuel use, while well-intended, are misguided; perhaps we can develop alternatives to them further down the line, but for certain applications (particularly medical stuff, but not exclusively) we’re stuck with them for now.

(But hey, if you’re looking for the patent that will secure your finances for the rest of your life, design a solar panel whose deployment—electronics included–requires no plastics! Good luck!)

However, that’s a pretty small category of things; by winding back to essential plastics only and nixing fossil fuels as fuels, we could get by with using orders of magnitude less of the stuff. What Altman’s essay shows (as do various academic papers, for those who like the references and the details; this one’s a doozy, all the more so for being written from within the machine, so to speak) is that not only is there no imperative to stop extracting oil and gas and making plastics, but also there’s no incentive to not keep accelerating the process.

So, disincentives, then? Well, yeah, some sort of genuine cost-to-polluter non-tradable carbon tax will almost certainly be necessary. But there ain’t no financial instrument which cannot successfully be gamed eventually by the sort of folk who get a boner at the thought of Number Go Up. The disincentives that will make a difference will need to be way broader than taxes or laws, more on the level of acute moral hazards.

And that brings us into a troubling space, for any number of reasons—not least of which is the implication that, if you want to get rid of a fundamental plank of the ideological operating system on which the whole planet is currently operating because it is deeply dysfunctional and pervasive, you’re going to have to not just come up with its replacement, but also a plan to make the switch… unless you want to rely on the goad of undeniable ecological disaster, which is probably more feasible in terms of its actually having an effect, but also really not the sort of choice you want to make deliberately rather than have thrust upon you. Plus I’m going to hazard a guess that the chaos of a such a circumstance is going to be just as amenable to ideological frameworks even more stupid and nasty than the one we’re currently caught in.

So, yeah—if you were hoping for a ray of sunshine or a “solution” here, well, you’re reading the wrong blog, sorry. But it bears noting that however annoying you may find those people who pipe up and say “capitalism is the culprit” in any such discussion as this—and however much you may agree with Latour, as I do, that words like ‘capitalism’ are black boxes which must always be opened and unpacked and examined in detail, lest they become just another secular deity in the pantheon of we who have never been modern—those people are not wrong.

Where they go wrong is in assuming that ending it is something like turning off a switch somewhere… but that’s a rant for another day, assuming you’ve not heard some version of it already. There’s still ways out of this metaphorical boat, mind you, that don’t involve taking an axe to the keel. But solutions of any flavour—be they carbon taxes or carbon capture, blockchains or bloodless revolutions that manage to convince almost everyone of their rightness overnight—are not gonna cut it.

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