The cost of packaging goes beyond the environmental and economic waste it creates at the end of its useful life.
All current packaging materials – whether virgin, recycled, degradable, or synthetic – will create a debt beyond current efforts of environmental management.
Tracing back to the origins of materials we splinter off into several directions. Bio-plastics made from corn and other natural resources begin, to an extent, on a plot of industrial farmland, where maximized productivity is a key focus. Crops grown for use in plastics are treated with pesticides, which are harmful to humans and creatures alike. They also leach into the surrounding groundwater.
In addition, a report finds that bio-plastics cause greater ozone damage than petroleum based plastics. Still, if bio-plastics could overcome their pesticide use and chemical-intensive processing phase, they would rate far above petroleum-based plastics for their biodegradability. So long as they aren’t placed in an anaerobic landfill.
To make most synthetic plastics, raw materials (namely oil) are processed into hydrocarbon monomers that carry out polymerization reactions. These reactions produce resins, which are then processed, often with the addition of dyes, flame-retardants, or plasticizers. From here, there are different processes used to turn the resin into the final, plastic product: extrusion, injected molding, blow molding, and rotational molding. In general, the plastic is heated, allowing it to be sculpted to perfection, and is afterwards cooled. Once cooled, plastics will retain their shape.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2010, plastic and resin manufacturers in the U.S. used 191 million barrels of petroleum to make plastic products. The breakdown of this total produces a startling ratio: one million of the 191 million barrels was used for transport, and the rest was used as feedstock.
Of course, we couldn’t simply investigate the amount of oil used to produce plastic without looking into the origins of oil itself.
Oil fields, the sites of petroleum extraction, are found in a number of ways.
One way is to use a seismic survey to find whether an area may form an oil reservoir. There are also instruments, gravimeters and magnetometers, which are used to search for petroleum. You could also go old school and take your chances by causing an explosion on site.
Once the geological structure is claimed, the drilling of an oil well begins. Thereafter, the land is sucked dry and business is uprooted to move elsewhere. But without first dispensing a parting gift, in the form of oil spills and runoffs, which harm marine, avian, and other animal life, in addition to polluting water supply.
Beyond that, it will further pollute the air to varying degrees as it fuels the vehicles that will chauffeur the materials from manufacturers to retail shelves.
It is not impossible to estimate the mileage that goes into transporting packaging material.It is tricky, however, and depends on the products and company for which the package will be of use and where that company ships those products.
Also to be factored in is the type of transportation involved – plane, train, or automobile. Although common knowledge allows us to infer train travel as the least energy extensive, followed by the automobile and plane.
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