Notes and comments on Ecosystem Energy economics,Global Climate change, Planetary Overshoot and Coping Strategies Generating Resilience at the End of Growth living on a Wyoming Farm

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Plastic Problem

                                                                                                                                                                         In previous posts Ihave covered decarbonization of energy and it is high time to continue to lookat the  complex interconnected global industrial system focusing on one ofits dominant components: Plastics. It is past time to cover Dematerializationof plastics.
      Whocan forget the key line of the 1967 movie TheGraduate,when Dustin Hoffman got the famous advice for his career:“Plastics.”
Back in 1967 plastics were known andutilized in society but who would have expected that plastics would within 50years become such a dominant industrial substrate and worldwide pollutant andcontributor to species extinction and CO2 emission induced climate change?Plastic pollution is now on the radar of environmentalists but I see little inthe way of restricting plastic use anywhere outside of some insignificantsilliness like banning plastic straws. Less silly are some decent first stepslike banning plastic bags. One nation, Vanuatu, has in fact recently bannedplastic bags nationally and is attempting to add many other plastic productbans to their list. Other nations such as Chile have made efforts in the samedirection which no surprise has been fought vigorously by the plastic industry.
Which companies are the dominantpolluters of our oceans and waterways. Greenpeace and some other environmentalorganizations have compiled worldwide oceanic surveys and here areworst of the worst:
  1. Coca-Cola
  2. PepsiCo
  3. Nestlé
  4. Danone
  5. Mondelez International
  6. Procter & Gamble
  7. Unilever
  8. Perfetti van Melle
  9. Mars Incorporated
  10. Colgate-Palmolive
As soon as the spotlight was onthem, many of these companies scrambled through their PR Departments to pledgebetter recycling in the future but virtually none offered to remove plasticentirely from their packaging. This is patent nonsense of course. Most plasticsare not recycled and many countries starting with China have stopped acceptingunsorted plastic trash for recycling. The whole recycling movement is largely a bogusfeelgood scam to make consumers assuage their guilt about plastic use in theirlives. This writer’s opinion is that most plastic recycling is a waste of timeand energy and does nothing to reduce the USE OF PLASTIC in our lives. Anotherfactor is that the price for Ethane, the feedstock has hit rock bottom in thepast several tears making recycling economically pointless. Here is a recentgraph from the EIA of current prices for the main natural gas liquids:                         
https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrocarbon-gas-liquids/prices-for-hydrocarbon-gas-liquids.php.    The only way to get rid of single use plastic pollution is to stop producingit! Who are the biggest producers of  PE/PPplastics?
Top Plastic Manufacturing Companiesin USA – Manufacturers of Plastics and Plastic Goods

Table 2 – Summary of top U.S.A plastics manufacturers
Annual Revenue (Billion $)**
Mkt Cap (Billion $)***
Irving, TX
San Ramon, CA
Midland, MI
Kingsport, TN

There are no surprises here if youare familiar with the feedstock for single use plastic: Fossil Fuels.Specifically natural gas. More specifically the Ethane fraction of natural gaswhich undergoes conversion to Ethylene which becomes the precursor to Polyethylene(PE), polypropylene(PP) and a myriad of others. It is the polyethyleneplastics that are called “Food grade” that dominate plastic pollution and theshocking fact of PE production is that these big oil and gas and chemicalcompanies have been on a massive multi-billion dollar factory constructionbinge in the past few years primarily along the US Gulf Coast in Texas andLouisiana to meet the “increasing demand.” One new factory in Texas built byDow claims to be the world’s largest facility:
HOUSTON (ICIS)–DowDuPont MaterialsScience, the business division of DowDuPont to be named Dow, on Thursdayannounced the start-up of its new integrated world-scale ethylene productionfacility and its new ELITE enhanced polyethylene (PE) productionfacility, both in Freeport, Texas.

The units will continue to ramp up through the third quarter and areexpected to reach full rates in the fourth quarter of 2017.

The ethylene production facility has an initial nameplate capacity of 1.5mtonnes/year. As part of a next wave of investment, capacity will be expanded to2m tonnes/year, “making it the world’s largest ethylene facility”, the companysaid.
Exxon Mobil in Baumont Texas hasalso just completed an enormous facility to produce PE : Here is the PRannouncement:
ExxonMobil begins production on Beaumonthigh-performance polyethylene line
IRVING,Texas – ExxonMobil said today it started production on a new high-performancepolyethylene line at its Beaumont, Texas polyethylene plant. The expansionincreases plant production capacity by 65 percent or 650,000 tons per year,bringing site capacity to nearly 1.7 million tons per year.
ExxonMobilbegins production on Beaumont high-performance polyethylene line
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  • Increases polyethylene plant production capacity by 65 percent or 650,000 tons-per-year
  • Project supported more than 2,000 temporary jobs and approximately 40 permanent jobs
  • Expansion makes Texas the company’s largest polyethylene producer.
Notice that this enormous highlyautomated computerized facility not only will produce 1.7 million tons of PEbut it has created 40 permanent jobs to boot!
If you go on the Industryorganization websites you might be aghast as I was to see no sign of industryguilt or responsibility for causing worldwide plasticpollution. It’s not their fault. It harks back to the old NRA phrase that “Gunsdon’t kill people. People kill people.” Dow doesn’t cause plastic pollution. Peoplecause plastic pollution.
This blogger has a pessimisticoutlook of any meaningful chances for measures to mitigate climate changebecause of the lack of leverage and pressure points to alter the growthparadigm but I feel that that is not the case with plastic pollution. There aremany measures that we as individuals can do and many individuals andorganizations now having an effect at the local and state level. There needs tobe a national and international initiative to END ALL USE OF SINGLE USEPLASTICS WORLDWIDE. That means that any new plastics factories being built to producesingle use plastics need to be stopped. This will be a hard sell given  the obvious political power of the globalizedoil and chemical companies in Texas and Louisiana. The only high paying jobs inthe Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana are in the petrochemical and Oil and gas industry. These existing factories might be ableto reconfigured to producing different plastic: multiuse, durable and longlasting and not single use garbage. These companies are arguably indifferent tothe ecological damage they have caused to the planet for decades and until theyare brought to heel by concerted consumer driven pressure, they are unlikely toyield their power and influence. The national grocery chains could play a bigrole if they leaned on their suppliers en masse and ship their products in bulk,paper or glass and metal. That is the way it was done just 50 years ago and itcould be done again. No beverages should be bottled in single use plastic andthat includes the worst offender: bottled water. Most people remember theFrench Bottler Perrier and their iconic light green 1 liter bottles. If plasticcontainers could be returned for refill and reuse just the way that coca colareused their beautiful sexy glass  coke bottles, plasticcontainers could remain in circulation. Put a deposit on the containers. BritishColumbia has a 10 cent deposit on glass and plastic bottles ut to one liter. Put deposits on containers of all sizes so they can be returned for reuse or incineration! The problem ofcourse is that sterilization and reuse of plastic containers is problematic atleast for polyethylene which disintegrates rapidly compared to many otherplastics. It disintegrates into smaller and smaller particles and is  eventually ingestedby all living organisms in the food chain. I read recently that most samples ofSea Salt are now contaminated with microplastics.
Since recycling of plastics islargely a failure, the obvious solution in my opinion is to burn most plastics inefficient furnaces which could include co-generation and electricitygeneration. It is possible to burn plastics cleanly if they are not co mingledwith other household trash because remember: Polyethylene comes from a naturalgas fraction:ethane, and any plastics in that family could be burned togenerate heat and electricity. David Reed in a letter to the Guardian Newspaperhad this to say about burning plastics: “The effort of collecting, transportingand cleaning plastics for possible recycling has largely failed, created muchmore pollution and contributed massively to climate change. The idea of burningplastics and using the energy to heat our homes was proposed by the plasticscompany Dow more than 30 years ago: it suggested treating all plastics as“borrowed oil”. At that time, ordinary domestic waste had a calorific value oflow-grade coal, so the suggestion was that this plastic waste should be burnedin efficient plants with heat recovery and treatment of the gases produced,perhaps even trapping the carbon dioxide produced, rather than trying torecycle the complex (and dirty) mix of plastics.  Today, with higher useof more complex plastics, this makes even more sense. Mixed plastics cannotreally be recycled: they are long-chain molecules, like spaghetti, so if youreheat and reprocess them, you inevitably end up with something of lowerperformance; it’s called down-cycling.”
     This approach to stopping worldwide plastic pollution can succeed using aregion by region approach applying pressure at the local and regional levellong enough that the packagers and producers will be forced to do the rightthing. They are certain to fight tooth and nail using the legal system, theInterstate Commerce Rules and lobbying their political toadies to preservetheir wealth and power. If the consumer stops buying their garbage, they willbe forced to stop selling it.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Growth is the Cause of Global Climate Change

 It is time to get serious about Global ClimateChange by looking at the root cause: GROWTH. Global climate change/Warming hasbeen the focus of world wide demonstrations primarily by the youth kickstartedby Times’s person of the year, Gretta Thunberg.  Children will inherit this mess. Most adultsdon’t get it, especially my baby boomer generation. Almost no politicians getit and most don’t even understand it with many including our president  calling  climate change, the consequence of growth a “hoax”. 37% of adults in a recentpoll  said the warming came fromincreased solar radiation! In this short essay my goal is to show that climatechange is merely the symptom. The root cause isexponential increases of population and material consumption what we callGROWTH which has altered the climate. This growthof the economy accelerated exponentially with the onset of the industrialrevolution which began two centuries ago and really took off within the past150 years. This growth was fueled by the discovery and utilization of fossilenergy, initially coal followed by oil and gas. The unprecedented  economic boomafter WW 2 in the US was the poster child for this massive transformation inliving standards. The ditty at the time urged us to buy and consume, to see theUSA in our Chevrolet flying on newly constructed smooth glossy highways linkingthe shining new sprawling suburbs.  Allof the energy for this growth powered by virtually free fossil fuels pouringgasses into the air. Virtually no one then paid attention to the “externalities”of air pollution, loss of farmland, and certainly CO2 emissions which to manyof us was just vapor from dry ice in a high school science lab. Initially, few weretalking about any negatives to this newly discovered nirvana. Incomes wererising lifting all boats. Income inequality was minimal and except for thebeginning of smog in Southern California, what was there not to like about lifein America? We were the model and the envy of the world with expandingopportunities, universal education and improving public health. Atmospheric CO2measured at Mauna Loa was 320 ppm in 1972.. It is important to note that Ice coresamples now go back almost 3 million years and no readings exceeded that number.(Ednote: today it is 413 ppm)There were a few brilliant minds who began toquestion this economic model including a group in Italy called the club of Romestarted by DavidRockefeller, Aurelio Peccei, and Alexander King  and a group of scientists at MIT led by JayForester. There was a growing awareness in the scientific community thatunlimited growth on a limited planet was unsustainable. Using the newlydeveloped science of System Dynamics and early modeling on freezer sized IBMcomputers, the group attempted to explain the likely trajectory of 13 differentscenarios of growth examining five different factors which allowed or limitedgrowth: population, pollution, industrial production, agricultural productionand natural resources.  In 1972 theypublished their results in a book called The limits to Growth. It was a  an environmental blockbuster hailed by many,assailed by others.The books central conclusion was that  a finite world could not support infinitegrowth and expansion without  collapse.The different scenarios’ model runs looked at outcomes when sustainabledevelopment was instituted and compared it to outcomes where currentdevelopment remained unchanged. Now almost 50 years later we can see that theworld has followed the unsustainable version and we are entering a period ofdecline which will result in a collapse of growth this century. It is too lateto institute a” sustainable” growth program to prevent collapse. That is not tosay that policies to reduce greenhouse gasses shouldn’t be enacted to reduceimpacts of climate change. They absolutely should! But to reemphasize myoriginal statement:Global climate change is the  symptom of unlimited growth, not thecause. The lag periods inherent in thebiophysics of these myriad  feedbackloops guarantee that climate change will continue the rest of this century. Ifnothing is done to arrest the process, the ultimate outcome could be far worsefor the world’s climate. Every ecosystem has a carrying capacity for its members and when that carrying capacityis exceeded there continues to be  overshoot of the population followed by collapse. This is the period we areentering based upon this 50 year old model. Critics of the original model thenas well as today refuse to believe the model. As Gore said, it is an inconvenient truth. One group doesn’twant to believe that there are limits to the human experience. Many believe thattechnology can extend or abrogate these limits if they in fact even exist.  Another group simply doesn’t care and thinkthere is still time to party and loot the environment for profit heedless ofthe consequences. Some of the rapacious “one percenters” do get it and arefleeing to their fortified island sanctuaries to save themselves leaving therest of us to our fate.
      It is a mistake that  just climate change has been the sole focus inworldwide demonstrations. Gretta Thunberg is exceedingly bright and and must certainly grasp that climate change is thesymptom and not the cause. In her direct and forceful voice she utilizes shame to try to force emission reductions  as  way of  reducingGROWTH,  which is the cause. The recentlyconcluded  COP25 in Madrid was yetanother doomed  conference focusing on asymptom of the problem because at this point the world is not ready for a conference limiting growth because limitinggrowth could shrink living standards, cause a depression, shrink the wealth ofmany countries, corporations, and powerful individuals.  I get it that this is a hot potato so she hasattacked the problem indirectly through the back door by seeking to limitgreenhouse gas emissions. Green house gas concentrations are increasing becauseof increasing population, increasing production leading to increasing materialconsumption fostered by burning fossil fuels to support that consumption. It’sas simple as that. But the growth and “Progress” model is baked into the world’seconomic, social and political cake and that is why absolutely nothing hashappened to reduce emissions or growth. Bill Clinton once said “no one was everelected promising less.”
     I am pessimistic that there is any hopethat our globalized industrial system will ever reach a consensus on limitinggrowth or industrial emissions.  For one,the human race has a short discount rate baked into our genes and our brain. Wehave a short time horizon. We focus on the immediate and discount the distant .The economy and political system operates exactly the same way. Corporate CEOsare rewarded not by the long term success of their companies but by quarterly increasesin the stock price or profits. This is greed at work and not a strategy to growthe company long term. Political decisions have  followed that paradigm. We may know thatupfront costs might promote benefits down the line to our descendents but upfront costs are too expensive costing jobs or profits or increased taxes so theproposals wither and die. That is exactly what has happened with for examplethe Kyoto accords which were tepid, mild and minimal to begin with. Almost nocountries have come close to meeting their obligations and some countries likethe US and Canada have scorned the accords and exited in high dudgeon. Mypessimism has an important theoretical basis. We now have a  complex globalized interconnected  economic system and not just a disparatecollection of independent  countries and the world economic system is like somegiant single organism. It is self regulating , and beyond any national control.It is like a shifting amoeba controlled by central banks and mysterious algorithmsutilizing incomprehensible derivatives constructed by unknown viziers behindthe curtain, like the wizard in the Wizzard of Oz. If Gretta and her supporterswant to find where the pressure  pointsor leverage points are to enact change, where would they look? They aredesperately trying to start a worldwide revolution by forcing major change onthe entire world. I am afraid this movement will fail just like the Occupy WallStreet movement failed 8 years ago. If she just stuck with trying to enactsimple measures to limit greenhouse gas increases it might be possible for themovement to have some impact.  I have somelimited simple measures that could be enacted as possible partial solutions.Simply put, my first proposal is to increase the cost of fossil energy.  Reduce emitting carbon from all fossil fuels. Forget carbon offsets. The second is:  soak up this carbon. The first way to reduceemissions is to borrow from Donald Trump’s playbook and put tariffs on fossilfuels. Trump is threatening to put a tariff of 100% on French wines. A federal tariffof 100% on oil gas and coal would be a minimal first start. For example the taxon aviation gas is 19 cents and only 24 cents on commercial jet fuel. Statetaxes on diesel and gasoline are a fraction of the per gallon cost in the US. Even with aminimal 100% tariff on fuel, the per gallon cost would still be under$5/gallon. The tariff should be raised in stages but it can and should be doneimmediately .Fuel surcharges in this range have been the rule in Europeancountries for many decades and their energy use per capita is about ½ ofAmericans as a consequence. The second and more effective way to cut worldwideemissions is to soak it up in plants and soil. A professor at the University ofNew Mexico in an article a year ago estimated that human generated emissionsonly account for about 8% of the world wide CO2 rise. This was an astoundingassertion.  This is a potential solutionbig enough to have real impact and yet right now nations are still removingmangroves, draining swamps and marshes and clear cutting forests. Theseactivities must cease and pressure brought to bear on those individuals,companies and nations engaging in these destructive practices to world health.Degradation of the soil by industrial agriculture also contributes mightily toemissions by the application of chemical agents which sterilize the soil,reduce tilth, increase compaction, decrease the percolation and promote windand water erosion. For example Roundup the most popular herbicide is a potentantibiotic and kills bacteria and fungi in tiny concentrations. Trees andplants not only pull CO2 out of the air to build their stems , roots and leavesand fruits. They pass carbon- rich root exudates which nourish the bacteria,fungi, protozoa,  nematodes, and worms ina healthy humus rich soil. Roundup stops this process cold by sterilizing soiland thereby blocking this carbon transfer. Ban roundup and related herbicides.Simple, Just a stroke of the pen.
   There. I have laid out two possible concreteproposals entirely absent from COP25. What do you think the chances of myproposals being enacted even if proposed by Gretta Thunberg?                                                                                                                             
      Ihave explained why I think the world is going to ride this horse into the groundbecause the individual has little impact on the globalized system. That doesn’tmean that there is nothing that an individual can do this century. I have nodoubt that this is the century of  decline  and collapse. All civilizations have collapsedbut after collapse there will be a chance of rebirth of new ones. Collapse willnot be uniform and some regions may experience only mild forms while othersexperience Armageddon. What we can do is to build resilience into our physical environment  and our culturaland social systems.  Build resilience into our consumption patterns by buyingonly things of high repairable quality that we absolutely need. Don’t buy new whenserviceable used products are available. Build resilience into our soils by organicpermaculture practices and consume only locally produced foods cooked in our home kitchens. Limit ourtravel to essential trips. Avoid flying on the aluminum bird. Build walkable communities with mixed use downtowns.Make sure all new structures are  insulated heavily and oriented properly to thesun to allow solar heating of the interiors and the hot water. This is trulymaking use of sustainable renewable energy. Forget  government subsidized giant windmills andmassive solar farms which have been a failure worldwide delivering only afraction of their nameplate output to electrical grids not designed for their erraticinput. Since 2014, the amount of new “renewable” electricenergy has lagged the annual increases in electric consumption. In other words,renewables are not replacing fossilenergy. They are not even keeping up! Emissions are continuing to increase. There is nothing green about most forms of this new “green” energy. All of it is built , transported and maintained using only fossil energy to generate only electricity which is merely an evanescent carrier of energy. Build resilience into the social and cultural fabric by paying attention toneighbors and family needs. Real happiness is getting what you want. If you’renot happy you are not getting what you want. Don’t confuse needs with wants.These simple aphorisms have been the basis of civilizations and religions longbefore we started burning coal and oil and should form the basis for a newsociety.
     I am a student of energy and I am wellaware of the consequences of my recommendations. The industrial revolution waslaunched by the sudden one time availability of a new form of concentratedenergy which has generated vast increases in wealth, amazing tools and machines,new professions, improvements in public health and education and vastenlargement of commerce and trade worldwide.It is now cooking the planet. In avery real sense, Energy IS the economy. There will be no equivalent substitutefor this fossil energy.  Implementation of Gretta’s recommendationswould face an array of powerful interests and nations who like the way thingsare and will fight to keep their wealth and power enabled by cheap energy. 
 I just reread Limits to Growth after 48 years andthe accuracy of its World Model predictions is stunning. Read it.