Tomorrowland's plastic tide

Tomorrowland's plastic tide

Plastic, fantastic?

In 1957, Disney’s Tomorrowland opened up a new walkthrough attraction: The Plastic Home of the Future, presented by Monsanto.[1] It was a real public magnet, and clocked around 20 million visitors in its 10 years of exhibition operation. Together with BASF, Monsanto was one of the leading manufacturers of plastics and synthetic materials in the post-war period. Polyester was hailed as part of the unclouded visions of the future. Thanks to oil as a seemingly inexhaustible resource, modern know-how and technology, industry had made plastic widely available and at cheap prices.

When the futuristic living capsule was brought down in 1967, it would prove to be a symbol of the problems plastics would eventually create a couple of decades later: wrecking balls, welding torches, chainsaws and jackhammers failed to destroy it. The wrecking balls simply bounced off the super-sturdy structure. Only with choke chains was it possible to destroy the model house and break it into smaller pieces.

Indestructible

Some 50 years after that, we are confronted with totally different images of the indestructible nature of those synthetic materials.

Plastic bags and sacks by the millions waving in the ocean like a school of jellyfish. Styrofoam balls in the guts of fish and cetaceans. A turtle strangled by a six-pack fastener. These shocking images have gone around the world, revealing the damage plastic pollution is doing to the environment. Today, one ton of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every three seconds. Since the times of the Plastic Home of the Future, plastic production has increased two hundredfold. And around 80 to 90% of it has become waste. All Western countries are shipping their plastic waste – that’s our household recycling ! - to South-East Asia and Africa, where open dumps abound.[2]

Ironically, what wrecking balls and jackhammers couldn’t do, ultraviolet radiation, wear, tear and chemical reactions manage quite well, unfortunately to our detriment, however. Those interactions produce smaller and smaller bits of material, until they become microplastics. At this stage, they are almost impossible to get rid of, and aggregate other pollutants. They prove once again their almost indestructible nature and pervade our whole environment.

But that's not all: plastic is also a major source of climate change.

Synthetic materials as heavy CO2 emitters

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a US public interest and environmental legal organisation, recently revealed that in 2019 plastic production and incineration added more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, almost as much as Germany alone emitted in the same year. "If plastic production and use grows as currently projected, by 2030 emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year", the organisation said.[3]

Plastic is 99% fossil-based. It is made from naphtha, a liquid produced from the distillation of petroleum, or from ethane, which is found in natural gas. To produce plastics, the petrochemical sector uses oil and gas, both as raw materials and as energy, making it the world's most energy-intensive industry.

"Our economies are heavily dependent on petrochemicals, but the sector receives far less attention than it should," said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), back in October 2018. "Petrochemicals are one of the major blind spots in the global energy debate, especially considering the influence they will have on future energy trends."[4] The agency estimates that global petrochemicals are set to grow by a third between 2020 and 2030.

More production means more pollution

At this rate, more than a billion tonnes of plastic a year will flood the planet, and oil will eventually be used more to make plastic than as fuel. "Almost all the new refining capacity being developed now incorporates petrochemical processes. This appears to be part of a long-term strategy to both seek additional margins and guard against the perceived risk of a global oil demand peak," the IEA writes.

To make the most of oil, the industry is relying on an innovative refining technique: crude oil-to-chemicals (COTC). Described by the American economic agency as a "revolutionary technology", this process makes it possible to convert up to 70% of a barrel of crude oil directly into petrochemical derivatives, whereas conventional refineries manage to extract only about a fifth.

At the end of 2015, just as the Paris climate agreement was being finalized, a giant factory in the eastern Saudi Arabian oil city of Jubail began production of polyethylene - the chemical compound at the base of most common plastic materials. At this Saudi refinery, co-owned by the oil company Aramco and the Chinese chemical giant Sinopec, the two companies will be able to produce two to three times the volume of plastic produced by their current refining complexes.

The future then and now

In short, while humanity has less than ten years to halve its greenhouse gas emissions, the petrochemical industry invests billions of Dollars on technologies that will aggravate two of our biggest problems: the plastic tide, and CO2 emissions.

Wouldn’t it be time to imagine a new Home of the Future today? A home built with much less CO2 heavy materials, and which, if left to itself for a long period of time after having served its purpose, would simply be deconstructed slowly by bacteria and fungus?

Until we get there, and fortunately many companies are working on it, one simple way to make a difference is to start with our closet. Remember that as a whole, two thirds of any garment produced around the world are synthetic polymers, with many at 100%, so you need to be picky! We can decide now to fill those wardrobes not with synthetic clothing, but shop instead for natural alternatives, and do this every time we need a piece of equipment.

 

[1] Exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein

[2] Mickaël Correia (2022). Why the future can’t be plastic. Le Monde diplomatique.

[3] CIEL (2019). Plastic & climate: The hidden cost of a plastic planet. Center for International Environmental Law. Available here

[4] IEA (2018). The Future of Petrochemicals. Towards a more sustainable chemical industry. Technology report. International Energy Agency. Available here

Further readings