We know plastic waste is a massive environmental issue. From overflowing landfills, incinerators polluting the air, to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch polluting the ocean, plastic has become a ubiquitous presence in modern society. The waste product from plastic is a horrible post-consumer stain on the planet. But there’s more to the story. It may even be worse than the garbage and pollution we see.
Most people associate plastic production with petroleum. What you may not know is that most of the plastic produced in the United States actually comes from natural gas.
What are ethane crackers?
It’s a strange-sounding name for a fairly cloaked industry laying the foundation for plastic production. Ethane crackers are factories that transform ethane from natural gas into products used in plastics. The process first separates ethane from natural gas by “cracking” the bonds. This produces ethylene, which is then processed into various forms of resins and ultimately converted into plastic products.
So what’s wrong with ethane plants?
The problems are multi-faceted. Some are easy to spot and others fly under the radar. For starters, the natural gas used in the production comes from the process of fracking. Even worse than the problems that come with natural gas emissions is the fact that extracting and transporting it also releases another problematic greenhouse gas, methane.
The process of fracking also consumes huge amounts of water, which is obviously a limited resource. Changing the dynamics of the groundwater contributes to ecological problems and water shortages. Additionally, it’s been associated with ground instability and is a possible contributing factor to increased earthquake activity.
Meanwhile, the processing of natural gas injects chemicals into the ground that then have to be processed out. This isn’t always done effectively, leading to water pollution.
Perhaps the primary long-term effect (as if all of the aforementioned isn’t bad enough) is setting up reliance on more plastic. When we invest in the plants instead of cleaner alternatives, it puts that infrastructure into mainstream use, making it harder to break away.
In a general sense, we can do better than natural gas and we can certainly do much more to eliminate our reliance on plastic. On a local level, though, ethane crackers raise the level of concern as they are toxic for the entire community. Workers are exposed to an abundance of toxic chemicals, which is rarely mentioned when companies promote the number of jobs a new plant will bring to the area.
Plus, the plants have to tap into existing pipelines or create new ones in order to transport the natural gas. This opens the door to leaks anywhere along the way. The plants themselves also emit hazardous pollutants, such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde, which have been linked to everything from cancer to birth defects.
What is the current status and future forecast for ethane crackers?
In the past seven years, ethylene production in the United States has increased by 50%. As of 2022, there are around 34 ethane crackers online in the U.S. It’s a rising trend and the industry is expected to continue growing to meet the demand for plastic production.
As we mentioned, pollution and health risks come with each new plant. Oil & Gas Watch reports, “Over half of these plants — 18 of 34 — have poor environmental track records and have been labeled by EPA as ‘high priority violators’ of the federal Clean Air Act, according to EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Online (ECHO) database. Sixteen of these plants have been in continuous noncompliance with the Clean Air Act every quarter for the last three years.”
At least half a dozen additional plants or plant expansions have been proposed, mostly across the already saturated Gulf Coast region. Communities are speaking out against the development for good reason. Who wants to raise a family in an area with natural gas wells, pipelines and processing plants that release toxins in the name of producing plastic, chemicals and gasoline?
Will the plastic boom and new ethylene plants hurt climate goals?
For all the reasons mentioned, it can’t possibly help. While natural gas is certainly cleaner than coal, as a whole package, it’s as dirty as the petroleum industry. Yet, ethane crackers are being pitched as a solution rather than being identified for what they are, which is another way for the fossil fuel industry to make money and keep us on the hook for demand.
What can we do?
As consumers, it’s our job to be conscientious in our purchases. If we demand manufacturers find alternatives to plastic, they will invest in cleaner packaging and innovative product design. Alternatively, if we continue to create demand for plastic, we directly contribute to the creation of ethylene and the subsequent impact on the environment.
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