In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” young Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman), fresh out of college, is taken aside by a middle-aged neighbour at a cocktail party and offered some advice about his future. The neighbour has one word of advice for him, just one word—“plastics.”
It was good advice. Plastics were then at the beginning of an extraordinary evolution as a material. They are now used for everything from furniture to DVDs to heart valves to wind turbines. With a 3-D printer on your desk, and designs downloaded from the Internet, you can print out your own products. It’s hard to imagine modern society without plastics.
As Alberta increasingly faces the phasing out of fossil fuels, it increasingly looks for ways to preserve a future for oil and gas. One answer is—in one word—plastics. Alberta is acting on the advice offered to young Mr. Braddock. The industry looks even brighter today as plastics replace ever more materials. World production is 20 times what it was when Ben was choosing a career.
While the oil industry staggers under the drop in demand and price for fossil fuels, its petrochemical sector, which produces a range of plastic inputs, booms. An incentive program introduced by Rachel Notley’s NDP Government resulted in two pipeline companies spending $8.5 billion on polypropylene facilities, designed to produce plastic pellets for a range of consumer goods. Herein lies potential for an industry that will lead to additional economic diversification and build up the value chain in the oil and gas industry.
But there’s a problem isn’t there? The world is drowning in plastic. It’s swamping landfills and filling the oceans to the point where by 2050 there could be more plastic in the seas than fish. Microplastics are now present in every part of the environment threatening ecosystems everywhere.
This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. The oil and plastics industries have spent many millions convincing us that plastics could be profitably recycled. It isn’t true. In the U.S. no more than ten percent has ever been recycled.
Recycling plastic simply doesn’t make economic sense. Collecting it, sorting it, cleaning it and melting it down is expensive. Furthermore, it degrades each time it’s reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.
New plastic is cheap, almost always less expensive than recycled and of better quality. And, of course, from the oil industry’s perspective, recycled plastic is competition. The more recycling, the less oil and gas production. Making new plastic is hugely profitable, recycling old plastic isn’t.
But the clock is ticking. We must either learn to recycle plastics effectively or be overwhelmed. Will Alberta’s prosperity once again be at odds with an environmental imperative? I think they call it déjà vu.