China's push to use more coal to make plastics is a good illustration of the dilemma the world has in balancing a clean environment with economic growth and jobs, especially in a place like China, with its almost overwhelming need to have both, and have them right now.
I was thinking about this after listening to several presentations from Chinese chemical industry officials, about how they want to expand their factory base using coal to make plastics, and how they hope to get their government's approval to do that.
The government last year put a hold on some of the investments, citing capacity issues. Some Chinese industry officials following the issue said authorities want to know more about both the economic and environmental impacts, but they also believe government will ultimately give more such factories the go-ahead.
If it does, the big reason is likely to be economic security. China understandably wants to reduce its heavy dependence on imported plastic resin — up to 50 percent in some categories like polyethylene — and take advantage of its chief and most abundant fossil fuel resource, coal.
This sort of economy/environment trade-off isn't unique to China, obviously. It's the same thing that drives the U.S. to drill a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico, and then watch as the Deep Water Horizon oil rig explodes, killing 11 and fouling the environment and local economies.
The problem is that coal is not a very clean raw material or safe for workers.
Three Chinese factories are set to start this year making PE and polypropylene from coal, joining others already making PVC from coal. It could become a significant part of China's production mix. Those three new factories this year could account for 7 percent of China's polyolefin production, and one Chinese consultant told me the industry could have three times as much coal-to-olefin production in 10 years.
But coal mining creates a lot of environmental damage, and with the dangerous way it's done in China, it's been killing at least 2,500 workers a year in mining accidents. (About 30 to 50 coal miners a year die in the U.S., by comparison.) Using coal as a feedstock for China's plastics industry contributes to other pollution as well.
China is the world's biggest user and emitter of the highly toxic pollutant mercury. Within China, the single biggest users of mercury are the factories turning coal into PVC, according to the nonprofit, New York-based environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, which said it has been working with Chinese authorities to develop solutions.
Those PVC makers need mercury as a catalyst with coal, while manufacturers elsewhere don't need it because they don't use coal as their feedstock.
These environmental concerns are discussed at Chinese industry conferences. I heard the head of the China Chlor-Alkali Industry Association, for example, tell a recent industry gathering that the country needs to intensify efforts to develop non-mercury catalysts.
I live in Guangzhou, in South China's industrial heartland, where I see the pollution that is the consequence of rapid industrialization without enough environmental control.
China's choice with coal-to-plastic technology is the same one the rest of the globe faces — how do we improve living standards up to a level some in North America, Western Europe and elsewhere take for granted, while not ruining the environment?
Many Western economies did a lot of damage and ignored basic worker safety as they industrialized, and today, those economies could be a lot more energy efficient. The average American today has an energy footprint five times that of the average Chinese.
Still, it's a fair question to ask: Is coal feedstock for plastics something that should be considered “sustainable,” since everyone wants “sustainable” development these days? Considering the pollution and safety record of China's coal industry, I think the answer is no.
But as these coal plans show, finding a way to meet the need for better living in China, India and other places in a clean way, that's the challenge.
Steve Toloken is Plastics News' Asia bureau chief.