Monday, March 30, 2009

Fake plants to be made out of plastic...plants?

With all our discussion of the end uses of petroleum and how we use so much, I got to wondering how much we use in the manufacturing of plastics. They are, after all, petroleum based and they are in almost every area of our lives. During my search, I found an interesting online article in The Independent, a British newspaper. It answered my petroleum question, claiming that "plastics account for seven million barrels of petroleum per day - that's 8 per cent of global supply." The article didn't cite any sources so I'm not sure where the data came from, but the thing that struck me was the content of the article. It discusses efforts being made by companies, namely the American company Metabolix, to produce bio-plastics. These plastics are produced from bacteria and plant sugars, and the company hopes to actually be able to grow plants engineered to produce this plastic in the near future. As the article explains, the actual formation of the plastic occurs due to the bacteria, so the plants could have other uses like bio-fuel feedstocks. The example given was of switchgrass, which is a promising fuel feedstock that can grow in a variety of environments and be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Someday, refineries may be able to produce plastic and fuel from the same crop, greatly incereasing the appeal of crop-based biofuels (as opposed to algae).

Upcoming technologies and their possible sucess or failure, (this article is from 2007 and I'm not sure if Metabolix succeeded) highlight the idea that it is difficult to predict, and thus support which technologies will end up helping us reduce our environmental impact. Almost everything we do has an impact; the result is that we aren't picking between good and bad technologies, but bad and worse technologies. For example, this whole bio-plastics thing could be a huge lift to the crop bio-fuels cause, despite the fact that soil degradation and ecosystem impacts are still a huge issue. Even with these drawbacks, the cost-benefit analysis may end up showing a large enough net gain to make crop based biofuels a good decision. And huge, unexpected advancements like this one could happen at anytime, in any area of research.

That line of thought made me realize the importance of changing the way we behave and how we use energy. No matter what method of producing energy ends up wining out, advances made in efficiency and cultural changes that help us use less will always help reduce our impact on the environment.

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