21 October 2021
Elvis was right all along
A study in plastics.
By Paul Branch
Let’s start with a little teaser which we’ll get back to eventually: What links Greta Thunberg, Her Majesty The Queen (no, not Carrie… the real one), and the One and Only King, Elvis Presley? In the meantime (and yes, this is a bit of a giveaway), a moment to consider what bits of our world might look like in a fossil-fuel-free environment.
As a former failed physicist and current somewhat emotive conservationist, I am sometimes asked “How can we replace all the “structural” plastic we use in our everyday lives?” Plastic as we know is a totally synthetic polymer material containing no naturally occurring molecules. Invented over 100 years ago by Leo Baekeland in its original Bakelite form, it provided a cheap, lightweight substitute for shellac as an insulator for the burgeoning US electrification industry. But now it goes way beyond that into almost everything we use or wear, our appliances and containers, the cars we drive … and it’s cheap because it’s formed from ethane and propane, the by-products when plants, natural gas and mainly oil are refined. As well as its fossil fuel heritage it also makes for dangerous and unpleasant waste which can take up to 1000 years to decompose. Stop refining crude oil to make petrol and diesel, as we now fervently hope will happen one day before the planet melts, and the business case for plastic evaporates. But what to use in its place?
Traditional materials such as wood and its offshoots would clearly be unsuitable replacements for the myriad uses of plastic: unwieldy, inflexible, expensive and difficult to mass-produce are but a few of its drawbacks, and let’s face it the days of wooden cars are long gone and unlikely to return. Metal in its many forms has similar issues. But there is hope on the horizon in the shape of developments in bioplastics – these have the same molecular structure as petroleum-based plastics but are derived from renewable clean resources and they biodegrade far easier. One example which echoes the by-product advantages of plastics lies in olive stones, the leftovers from the production of olive oil. One company in Turkey has already created a range of bioplastic granules which could be readily substituted for conventional plastic granules without impeding the production cycle for industrial products and packaging.
A similar initiative is underway in Germany, this time with the waste husks of sunflower seeds resulting from the production of sunflower oil. The resulting bioplastic material is good for “hard” items such as office furniture and recyclable boxes for transportation and storage. In the realm of “soft” applications for bioplastics for biodegradable and home compostable packaging, a UK company is using fish skin and scales (generated round our shores at the rate of 500,000 tons per year) bound with red algae. In Holland they’re using plant-based sugars for packaging, and in California it’s mushrooms for that look-alike leather effect on clothing. So thus far a healthy number of innovative start-ups aimed at taking the pain out of plastic abstinence in the future …. without much if anything in the way of discernible government intervention or support.
But what of government actions and firm commitment leading up to the COP26 conference on climate change just around the corner? The presence of allegedly 25,000 attendees in Glasgow has to be a good sign of international awareness of impending doom and the critical need to take concerted cooperative global action. On the flip side is the question of why does it take that many people leaving millions of air miles worth of carbon footprints in their wake, and imposing an even higher risk level of Covid infection on the good people of Glasgow? There are around 200 countries in the world, so if they all turn up that would be an average of 125 delegates each, maybe not even counting the inevitable security contingents. Quite a turn-out, and as host to the conference Boris will be entertaining many Heads of State to dinner as a warm-up act, presumably to get them in the mood for big decisions with his unique brand of banter. Xi Jinpeng and Pope Francis are unable to attend we understand, His Holiness for medical reasons but Chairman Xi will have probably heard most of the jokes before.
The USA’s head of climate change, John Kerry, has been impressively vocal about the importance of COP26 as being the world’s last best hope for survival, so no pressure then on the UK in its leadership role, and of course on Boris personally on whom the spotlights will inevitably fall and who rarely shuns such opportunities to shine. Just in time we have published our input to the conference, intended to set the tone, technically and strategically, for a successful outcome. Criticism has been widespread of the government’s progress to date on formulating a realistic plan for the part we will play in saving the planet. Too slow, no detail, not enough joined-up strategies or financial commitment probably constitute the milder bits of feedback Boris has received. We do now have a better, more refined plan; still underestimating how much money all the necessary actions will require, and still not fully comprehensive, but at least it represents progress.
A couple of areas of the new grand climate change plan give cause for comment if not concern. Aviation does not rate a mention, maybe because the industry is still on its knees and doesn’t need any more impediments to recovery. And the seeming focus on heat pumps to replace domestic gas boilers, with a £5000 subsidy for 90,000 lucky punters willing to put up some £2500 of their own money. With conventional gas boilers being phased out by 2035, it’s likely that the better off will benefit from the subsidy, with the rest having a few years to save up for their conversion. Today’s heat pumps are quite large beasts which tend to generate a lot of noise as well as heat. Installation in a typical terraced or semi-detached house would be challenging as well as expensive, but they could be the answer for larger commercial or community buildings. Current manufacturers of domestic gas boilers, such as Worcester and Bosch, are said to be focusing on developments with hydrogen as the new heating fuel, where the changes required to existing boilers and designs would be relatively simple. But the government’s plans thus far give this possibility little mention for domestic applications, perhaps because the preferred method of generating the hydrogen and how to store or distribute it are still uncertain. No matter ….. we’re getting there, at last.
Which is just as well. Governments in general and ours in particular have been excoriated by Greta Thunberg for their “blah, blah, blah” promises in the absence of concrete commitments and actions. Queen Elizabeth has joined in the tongue lashing in her own sweet regal way, intimating her irritation with “people who talk but don’t do”. But both were preceded by Elvis Presley over 50 years ago with the plaintive refrain: “A little less conversation, a little more action please.” And if you got the connection, two tickets for Leyton Orient’s first league fixture in November* are yours for the asking.