Deciding if the plastics industry should continue to rely on oil and natural gas as its base raw materials — or concentrate on efforts to find new plant-based feedstocks — ultimately comes down to deciding if the glass is half-full or half-empty. If you think it's full, you believe oil reserves are larger than scientists think, and that untapped quantities of black gold — which supplies precious ethylene, propylene, benzene and other monomers for plastics production — are out there for the taking.
On the empty side, you argue that the world is approaching the halfway point of its oil supply, meaning the pinch could be felt as early as 2050, accompanied by the price increases that accompany any diminishing natural resource.
The weighty question also involves the environmental impact of plastics in landfills, as well as the sustainability of using crops such as corn and wheat to make plastic resins.
>From a purer academic standpoint, the question comes down to a judgment of the late M. King Hubbert, the controversial British geophysicist who began making predictions about the limits of U.S. oil supply in 1956.
Hubbert correctly predicted that the oil supply in the United States would peak in 1970. His followers, including Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, have updated his findings and now claim that half of the world's oil reserves will be exhausted by 2010.
Campbell, Laherrere and others point out that 80 percent of current oil production comes from fields discovered before 1973. They also question oil reserve data reported by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies, headquarted in Vienna, Austria.
For example, from 1980-89, Saudi Arabia estimated its reserves were between 162 and 169 gigabarrels, meaning that new discoveries exactly matched existing production.
Pro-Hubbert researchers found this balance questionable enough — and then Saudi Arabia's number jumped to 258 gigabarrels in 1990, even though no vast new oil field was found. (To explain such a jump, Saudi officials would have had to increase their reserves by 88 gigabarrels, or roughly 4 percent of the global supply.)
But not everyone is buying into the Hubbell/Campbell/Laherrere findings. MIT researcher Michael Lynch has pointed out that Campbell has postponed his midpoint date and increased his estimate of the world's oil reserves four times since 1989.
Alan Struth, petroleum analysis manager for Honeywell Hi-Spec Solutions, also is a Hubbell skeptic.
"There's plenty of oil — I don't buy into any of the other theories," Struth said. "People say oil is being depleted at an unsustainable rate, but oil reserves are higher now than they've ever been.
"Exploration is being done all over, even in deep-water West Africa. The Mideast has at least a 200-year supply and there are parts of Saudi Arabia that haven't even been drilled."
Part of the perception problem is that world oil firms do not attempt to maximize production as quickly as they can.
"It comes down to: Why would you keep more than you need?" Struth added. "Does General Motors keep a 20-year supply of cars? If you're not consuming oil, it's wasted.
"With the oil crisis in the '70s a lot of people were on the bandwagon [that oil was going to run out]. Now, you take it with a grain of salt. Even a broken clock is right twice a day."
Even before the oil question was brought up, entrepreneurs were looking for alternate feedstocks for plastics.
The topic dates back at least to the 1930s, when auto tycoon Henry Ford looked into using soybean-based plastics for bumpers and other car parts.
And millions of Americans are reminded of the topic each holiday season without even knowing it. Remember the scene in the 1946 film classic It's a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey character convinces childhood pal Sam Wainwright to build a factory in Bedford Falls, instead of in some other town? Well that factory's going to make plastics out of soybeans.
In the last decade alone, research projects at universities around the world have proposed using potatoes, corn, wheat, beets, tapioca, aspen trees and crambe — a mustardlike plant — to make plastics.
Steve McCarthy, a professor in the plastics engineering department at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, points out there's some irony in this, since the plastics industry began by using natural ingredients like natural rubber and cellulose nitrate as feedstocks. Petroleum-based plastics didn't truly catch on until PVC and polyethylene use soared during World War II because of rubber and metal shortages.
McCarthy is closer to the issue than most, since he's spent the past eight years working with an industry consortium in Lowell exploring biodegradable options for the plastics industry.
The consortium is funded by 10 companies, including Monsanto Co. and Cargill Dow Polymers LLC.
McCarthy admits early trouble with product performance hampered some biodegradable projects.
"Biodegradables sort of blundered at first," McCarthy said. "The materials produced weren't truly biodegradable and they received a lot of criticism from Greenpeace and the [Federal Trade Commission]."
These problems, as well as poor marketing and sluggish sales, drove many firms out of the market. Monsanto shut down its Biopol unit and Chronopol, a degradable plastic unit owned by the Adolf Coors Co., closed its doors as well.
Other casualties included Churchhill Technology Inc., which filed bankruptcy in 1997 and later had its biodegradable patents bought by Novamont SpA of Milan, Italy. Churchhill — which made biodegradable additives, specialty polymers and water-soluble materials — lost almost $24 million between 1994 and 1996.
Others have soldiered on. Eastman Chemical Co. produces a biodegradable polymer, while DuPont has one in development. Processors like Biocorp Inc. of Redondo Beach, Calif., and ECM Biofilms of Mentor, Ohio, are aggressively marketing biodegradable bags, trays and cutlery.
One thing that continues to hold back biodegradable growth in the United States is the lack of a recycling/composting infrastructure, according to McCarthy.
"People need composts, not landfills where nothing degrades," he said. "Novamont has enjoyed some success in Europe, where there's more of a composting infrastructure and people enjoy recycling and will pay a little more for products that are helping the environment."
But biodegradables still hold their attraction, especially with so much of the world dependent on the volatile Middle East for its oil supply. Growing plastics feedstocks in bucolic Nebraska and Iowa would allow plastics makers to sleep better at night.
"A lot of chemical companies have realized their businesses fluctuate on the cost of these oil feedstocks, and that a lot of countries that provide the oil aren't as stable as [chemical companies] would like," McCarthy said.
Many of those who have tracked the progress of biodegradable plastic say that Cargill Dow, a joint venture between agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn., and chemicals leader Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., has the best shot at finally enjoying commercial success with biodegradable plastics.
The venture recently announced plans to build a plant in Blair, Neb., with 300 million pounds of capacity to manufacture polylactic acid — a resin based on plant sugars. Cargill Dow claims that its PLA resins will totally degrade after 45 days in a well-managed municipal compost.
Pat Gruber, Cargill Dow technology vice president, said the firm's technology offers much finer control of polymer structure than previous biodegradable resins had.
"With [Monsanto's] Biopol, they had one polymer and had to figure out how to modify it," Gruber said. "Our technology is more versatile. We're more diversified than that."
Already, 10 North American and European firms have announced plans to use Cargill Dow's biodegradable materials. The list includes Interface Inc., an Atlanta company that claims to be the largest commercial carpet manufacturer in the world; and Hoechst Trespaphan GmbH of Neunkirchen, Germany, the world's second-largest producer of oriented polypropylene film.
Another advantage Cargill Dow claims is its ability to use different crops to generate the plant sugars it needs in different parts of the world. For example, a European plant planned for 2002 likely will forgo corn for wheat, since that crop is more plentiful in Europe. Elsewhere, beet, tapioca and other sources of sugars could be used.
And the joint venture is making sure to keep price and affordability at the center of its efforts, realizing that many previous efforts simply priced themselves out of business.
"If you're designing something for biodegradability, that's not the right thing to do — it's secondary to price and performance," Gruber said. "People won't buy because of packaging. You buy a loaf of bread because it's good bread, not because of the package."
UMass' McCarthy, who owns one of the patents being used in Cargill Dow's technology, is more blunt.
"When materials are $2 a pound, consumers might like them and they might find a niche market," he said. "But most people can't afford to be that environmental."
Food for thought
Inside and outside of the industry, there are those who have openly wondered if using agricultural feedstocks to make plastics is morally defensible while world hunger exists. In other words: Shouldn't that corn go to starving people instead of to Cargill Dow?
Cargill Dow's response is that only 1 percent of world corn production goes directly into food uses. Half of the supply goes to animal feed and about 10 percent is used in sugars and sweeteners.
"[Making biodegradable products] doesn't take food off the table for someone else," Gruber said. "In some areas, we could even use cornstalks as [feedstock]. Europe produces a lot of wheat that's not appropriate for food use. Environmentally, it's going in the right direction, and socially it's creating new jobs and new opportunities."
The hunger issue is a very complex one that goes far beyond the biodegradable efforts of Cargill Dow or others in the field, McCarthy said.
"There's a huge excess of crops in the U.S. that's not used for food," he said. "The idea of people not having enough to eat is a political issue, not a technological one. Food gets shipped; it's just not distributed equally."
The area of renewable resources, of course, is much larger than the plastics industry. McCarthy puts things into perspective by pointing out the plastics industry uses less than 1 percent of the world's oil output each year.
"If we converted cars to ethanol and fuel cells, you'd have oil to make all the plastics you wanted," he said,
An oil optimist like Struth at Honeywell Hi-Spec reminds the plastics industry to keep its priorities in order.
"If people are looking for alternate feedstocks for plastics because they're worried about oil running out, they're doing it for the wrong reasons. Oil fields can usually deliver six times their initial recovery," he said
Gruber insists performance is more important than sustainability, in the near-term at least.
"The oil supply is big but it's not important in the near-run," he said. "Someday it may be, but in the short-run, the materials will sell because they work better in applications like apparel or film."