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November 02, 2018

Why we need alternatives to petrochemical-based materials

Juliette Van Haren

Petroleum’s pervasiveness dictates nearly every facet of our modern lives and our use of it and other fossil fuels is the major contributor to global warming.

The refining process in the petrochemical industry creates fuel oil and gasoline, provides the petrochemical ingredients for the production of plastic, fuels our cars and electricity generating plants, is used in agriculture as pesticides and fertilisers, and is used as a source for pharmaceutical products. It has also proven to be an impetus for wars between nations. Control over the resource allows some nations to prosper while creating economic hardship in others. Production and distribution of petroleum products are equated to power and control on the world stage; however, it is petroleum itself that controls us all.

Evidence of human use of petroleum dates back to 3000 BC. The Babylonians used crude oil (petroleum) that had found its way to the earth’s surface to waterproof their boats and as a mortar for buildings. However, it would take millennia to fully exploit it into the range of products we use today.

In the mid 19th century the first commercially feasible oil well in the world was discovered in North America. Its discovery coincided with an industrial revolution when the increased use of machinery required petroleum-based fuel. With the invention of the motorized, gas-fueled car came an increased demand for gasoline. With this high demand for gasoline and the success of the industry, a petroleum rush was created.

Our dependence on petrochemicals (products derived from the petroleum refining process) can be illustrated through an examination of the agricultural industry. One of the most important uses of petroleum is in the production of ammonia as the nitrogen provider in agricultural fertilizers. To safeguard consistent and healthy crop yields, agriculture has become highly dependent on pesticides. As a result, agriculture is one of the biggest consumers in the petrochemical industry as nearly all pesticides are produced from petrochemicals. Further, farming machines run on gasoline.

An example of an important agricultural crop is cotton, which accounts for approximately 35% of all fibers produced. Cotton is often used in clothing because of its comfort, strength, and breathability. However, cotton is a challenging crop to farm as it is prone to both drought and floods, and is especially susceptible to pests. Additionally, the production of cotton is incredibly water intensive. One kilo of cotton requires approximately 8,000 liters of water, accounting for 2.5% of worldwide water usage. To meet the large demand for cotton, farmers use pesticides and other chemicals to maintain consistent cotton yields and prevent failed harvests. While cotton covers about 2.4% of the world’s surface, it is responsible for 7% of the world’s pesticides usage. The cotton industry is, therefore, a significant user of petrochemical products.

The demands that cotton production imposes on natural resources, namely water and petrochemicals, are further exacerbated by the acceleration of fashion production. Historically, fashion houses and ready-to-wear designers produced two to four collections each year. Now, in response to consumer demand, fast-fashion companies are designing up to 50 collections per year. The average consumer purchases 60% more clothes today than in 2000, while keeping them for half as long. The average American throws away over 68 pounds of textiles per year. In order to deal with the growing demand for cotton, synthetic fibers have become more popular alternatives as they perform similarly to cotton but are easier and cheaper to produce.

By definition, synthetic fibers are not naturally occurring, but are man-made in factories through industrial manufacturing processes. Petrochemicals are mechanically transformed into polymer chips which are melted and extruded into continuous filaments and fibers for fabric. Even though the fiber may look and feel like natural fibers, they are actually plastic and take decades to decompose.

Washing synthetic clothing has been identified as a large source of plastic pollution. A single synthetic garment made from PET fleece sheds an approximate 110,000 fibers per garment through the laundering process. Microfibers can be shed from any type of synthetic fabric, such as polyester, rayon, acrylics or blends of these materials, and are released into water systems. These fibers are one hundred times finer than a human hair and one third the diameter of a cotton fiber. Plastics have been recorded in our oceans since the 1970’s when their production was far below the levels of today. Studies have shown that microfiber concentration levels in seawater samples correlate with the growth of production volume of synthetic fibers in manufacturing. The Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of plastic debris particles in the Pacific Ocean, and the increased awareness on the effects of plastics in the water have brought microplastics under the microscope. The Global Microplastics Initiative has created one of the largest datasets uncovering the extent of microplastic pollution across the earth. Research shows that this type of minuscule plastic is found in all strata of the marine environment. As microplastics are as small as a micrometer, it is almost impossible to filter them out in water treatment plants and thus they end up in the oceans where they accumulate. It’s small size, similar to the size of a plankton, makes it easy for fish to absorb, and in turn for humans to ingest upon consumption of fish. The consumption of plastic through our food is just one of the adverse health effects of the textile industry’s use of petrochemicals.

The ecosystem is not a closed system, and across many points in the cycle of production of petrochemical products we see the effects on human health. The manufacturing of petrochemicals used in common products can cause acute and chronic health diseases such as allergies, cancer, liver and kidney problems, and ulcers. People living in close proximity to petrochemical extraction and refining sites can experience effects from the effluents coming out of the factories, which can contain a large amount of polycyclic and aromatic hydrocarbons, phenols, metal derivatives, surface-active substances and sulphides. TOXMAP, an interactive tool offered by the US government, maps toxic releases across the USA and gives citizens more information about the effect of industries in their direct environment.

The health risks associated with the petrochemical industry extend beyond the extraction and refining stages. Petroleum-based consumer products can expose humans to chemicals with adverse health effects, such as phthalates, which could lead to endocrine disruption and could have effects on neonatal development. Another plastic, Bisphenol A, has been linked to endocrine disruption due to its estrogenic properties and is thought to be a carcinogen because of its tumor promoting characteristics. Formaldehyde is suspected to be a carcinogen and has been demonstrated to cause birth defects and genetic changes.

Unfortunately, not all plastics are disposed of or recycled properly, and remain in the ecosystem leaching more toxics into soil, water and air.

A 2014 study of German beer brands discovered that microplastics were present in all beers, other studies have shown that microplastics are not just in water but also in the air. But perhaps the most alarming fact is how little we know about the effects that micro-plastic consumption has on our health.

A future without petroleum. That is probably what we want when we understand the scale and seriousness of the problems that have been created by its use. Petroleum is a finite resource and is not renewing itself at a sufficient rate for sustainable economic extraction in a human time frame. It took the planet millions of years to form the petroleum reserves, and it took humans a bit more than a century to already raise concerns about its depletion.

However, although we cannot keep living with it, today we also cannot live without it. Many industries are still dependent on petroleum products. Petrochemicals have given us innumerable useful products and have fuelled countless inventions and innovations. Our cars, planes, trains, and ships run on it, without it we wouldn’t get very far. Without petroleum, our food would stop being produced and distributed and water would not come out of our faucets. Petroleum forms one of the pillars of our global economy. Most companies use petroleum products in some way, and rising or falling crude oil prices have ripple effects throughout markets.

Promising new developments are emerging in the industries which have traditionally taken petrochemical-based products as their main source. Within the textile industry, more awareness is being created about synthetic clothing that causes the microplastic pollution in our waters. In a world where sustainability is key to a long-term successful business, fast fashion can no longer exist. As awareness grows about the topic, companies are forced to consider their impact on our climate as consumers will demand more transparency in the products they buy. Creating a change in consumer perception is also sought for by the slow fashion movement, a term created by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Slow fashion is about designing, producing and consuming at a slower pace. The business models emphasize the quality of a product instead of quantity. They focus on sourcing and producing transparently as well as using local productions in order to support communities and industries that have been left behind due to globalization.

Interesting innovations such as lab-grown cellulose-based garments and algae-based yarns seem to have great potential. Also, the renewed interest in ‘forgotten crops’ like hemp and flax could aid in moving away from the petrochemical fiber industry. Hemp is a durable fiber source which requires fewer pesticides and less irrigation than cotton, and has the highest strength of all natural fibers. It has proven to be very versatile and has been used for making paper, canvas, cloth and construction materials.

It is exciting to see all these new material visions for the post-petroleum era. More and more businesses are looking for alternative resources for their fuel and materials, as running out of our fossil fuels is inevitable with the current rate of consumption. Much research is yet to be done on the effects of scaling up these petroleum-alternatives, but by promoting healthier and more sustainable materials today, we have a better chance of a healthier world in the future.

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