What's your company's carbon footprint? How about your suppliers' footprint, and your customers'? That's not a front-burner issue for most North Amerian plastics processors -- yet -- but it's getting a lot of attention in Europe. Let's look at a couple of recent columns that touch on the subject. First, Carl Mortished of The Times in London writes about how Western Europe is losing heavy industries -- including resin manufacturing -- in part because of efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. "Billions of dollars of potential investment in heavy industry, notably refining and petrochemicals, is moving east in search of lower costs -- and carbon trading is making the money drain flow faster," Mortished writes. "The popular prejudice in Britain is that chemicals is a sunset industry, an embarrassing industrial legacy that soon will be buried by the service sector and some fanciful 'green manufacturing,' powered on alternate Wednesdays by windmills. For decades our government has condoned this nonsense, but the truth is that chemicals is big business for Europe. The European Union runs a huge trade surplus in chemicals, â¬37 billion in 2007 -- more than â¬70 billion, if you include pharmaceuticals. "Unfortunately, the surplus is gradually shrinking. Asia, which for many years was a net importer of chemicals, is now in balance and is moving into surplus. China, with the assistance of American and European petrochemical companies, is building plant to satisfy domestic demand. In the Middle East, meanwhile, they have been building export industries -- manufacturing bulk plastics and oil products for export to Asia and to Europe. They are building scale while we are shrinking." Mortished laments that Western Europe will still need chemical products in the future, but instead of making them locally, they'll be buying them from "an Indian manufacturer fuelled by a dirty coal or diesel generator [that] ... can sell his plastics at rock-bottom prices in the EU." He adds: "We still need the products, but someone else will make them, out of sight and out of mind." Chris Smith, editor of our sister publication European Plastics News, addresses a different carbon dioxide-related issue in an opinion column that Plastics News reprinted in its Oct. 12 issue. Smith notes that "an increasing number of plastics producers and users today are boasting that their products are made from renewable sources or contain renewable material. The question is: What exactly does this mean? And what should it mean?" One problem, Smith says, is that companies are focusing too much attention at the renewable or bio-based content of their materials. "Focusing on material content alone overlooks the energy used in production. Is a polymer made from renewable resources using non-renewable energy necessarily better than one made from non-renewable resources using renewable energy? And what of recycling? Focusing on the source cannot differentiate between virgin and recycled material. "These are difficult issues to resolve. We need clear standards to ensure that manufacturers' environmental claims can be validated. But those standards must inform rather than misinform -- we cannot expect every consumer to read the small print." Smith and Mortished each raise some issues that are important to the long-term future of the global plastics industry. Some within the industry already doubt that the answers to the questions will favor petrochemical-derived plastics.
Plastics, carbon dioxide and the future
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