Monday, April 28, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Taken from The Business Shrink

America’s dirty little oil secret: Plastic Bottles and Bags April 26th, 2008
With oil prices surging to almost $120 a barrel on Friday April 25th, 2008 the sky is certainly looking like the limit. There are analysts and speculators that are now saying they don’t feel that $200 a barrel oil is unrealistic at this point. It’s definitely easy to question who is making money here, who is laughing all the way to the bank as the price rises and who might be responsible for the meteoric price rise in the barrel of oil. An unfortunate truth to who is helping the price levels stay high could be looking back at you in the mirror.

Even the U.S. Congress is scrutinizing oil company profits and refinery production in light of the supply and demand issues that seem apparent in the oil industry. Americans often want to point their fingers at the same culprits. As much as the oil companies, a growing global economy and wars are to blame for the oil price increases but consumer consumption of plastic products is also a culprit in keeping oil prices high and environment issues shaky.

The most reliable statistics from the Pacific Institute put America’s love affair with water bottles at 31.2 billion liters of water in 2006. Due to negative press on the possible health effects of the use, most people are aware water bottles are sold in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. In order to manufacture these bottles over 900,000 tons of plastic is needed. The mainstream manufacturing process that produces PET bottles requires a combination of natural gas and petroleum. The petroleum requirement is where the statistics show that America’s obsession could be hurting their wallets at the gas pump.

Bottom line, the production of 31.2 billion liters of water for the U.S. bottled water market took roughly 17.6 million barrels of oil. The calculation is explained in more detail at the Pacific Institute’s information page under the energy requirements for plastic bottles. The simple break down is 3.4 megajoules of energy to produce a water bottle, cap and packaging with a barrel of oil producing about 6 thousand megajoules. Taking those numbers into account you arrive at 17.6 million barrels of oil, enough oil to run 1.5 million cars on U.S. roadways for an entire year.

Americans are not alone in their addiction to bottled water. Although America is the number one consumer, other large consumers are Mexico, China, Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, Indonesia, Spain and India. The graph shows the difference of consumption from 1999 to 2004. A more clear version of the graph can be found here. In 2004 the previously mentioned countries consumed the following amount of liters in the billions: United States 25.8, Mexico 17.7, China 11.9, Brazil 11.6, Italy 10.7, Germany 10.3, France 8.5, Indonesia 7.4, Spain 5.5, India 5.1 and all other countries 39.9. This brings a total consumption in the billions of liters in 2004 to 154.3. Just for worldwide consumption of bottled water in 2004 alone it took roughly 87.4 million barrels of oil. You can imagine that with statistics for 2008, we have arrived at a figure in the hundreds of millions of barrels of oil being used just to produce bottled water. At 87.4 million barrels of oil, that’s enough to run 7.5 million cars on U.S. roadways for an entire year.

America and the world’s addiction to plastic doesn’t end there. Plastic bags have become commonplace all over the world for their ease of production, cheapness compared to paper bags at 2 cents a plastic bag and 4 to 6 cents for paper bags. The plastic bags are also light weight for transporting. Plastic bags take oil, just like plastic bottles to produce. Currently the U.S. consumes 100 billion plastic shopping bags in a year and worldwide consumption is estimated to be from 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags a year. That is roughly 1 million plastic bags a minute being consumed and less than 1% is recycled. The oil cost? With the 100 billion bags consumed in America it takes 12 million barrels of oil a year. Taking that figure and applying it to worldwide consumption you come up with a figure around 60 million - 120 million barrels of oil a year to produce plastic bags.

While it will not greatly impact the current problems we are having with oil, we can help save the environment by turning to recycling for all of the plastic products that we use. An interesting graph was provided by the Container Recycling organization showing the difference between the United States and Sweden in recycling PET bottles. In 2004 you can see that the U.S. was down to about 20% of all bottles consumed sending the rest to the landfill where they will sit for around 1,000 years.

Recycling plastic bags have not been much of a success either. In fact in the U.S. where 100 billion plastic bags are consumed it is estimated that only 1 percent to 3 percent of the bags are recycled. This leaves the rest of the bags in our landfills and other unsightly places like that plastic bag you saw blowing down the street last week.

In January of 2008 The Daily Green announced that China had made the decision to place a nationwide ban on plastic bags. The Chinese State Council set a date of June 1st, 2008 for all stores, small and large, to stop using plastic bags in the country. China was previously the largest user of plastic bags in the world using around 37 million barrels of oil for their bags. As mentioned by The Daily Green China is not alone with other large countries like Ireland and Uganda banning plastic bags. The United States is seeing similar measures in city and county government to place bans on the use of plastic bags.

The solutions are tough to swallow sometimes, especially when it could mean completely removing common and convenient plastic products out of our lives. However, even major retail outlets are trying to make it easier. During Earth Day Week this year Wal-Mart made prominent spots for their reusable $1.00 bags. Grabbing 5 - 10 of these bags can drastically change your impact on the environment by remembering to use a reusable and washable bag when shopping. The water bottle market is a little harder to deal with, especially in countries like Mexico where the public drinking water truly isn’t safe in some parts of the country. Home purification and refrigerator filtering systems can make sure people in America get better quality water. Looking at recently released reports, purifying your own water is probably more beneficial than the bottled water industry’s water anyway. Some reports claim that bottled water is sometimes nothing more than glorified city tap water. If you decide to take a step on your own to cut down on plastic water bottle usage, you could always get a reusable water bottle made by companies like Sigg. As of right now there are over 100 available on eBay that you can have shipped to your doorstep and start making a difference next week!

America and the world’s dirty little oil secret seems to be that while we are unhappy with the rise in oil prices, we really can make a difference if we all take action. It’s hard to change the comforts that the modern world has brought us, but you can do it in smalls steps and still have conveniences you’re use to with a little change. In just America alone, we are using 29.6 million barrels of oil a year to have the convenience of plastic bags and plastic water bottles. This could literally provide enough oil to fuel 2 - 3 million cars in the U.S. every single year. If you look at world figures we are using 147.4 - 207.4 million barrels of oil to use plastic bags and plastic bottles worldwide. That alone is more than OPEC pumps in a day at 32.22 million. The U.S. imports around 13.15 million barrels of oil a day according the CIA factbook. By seeing these number hopefully you will realize that you can make a difference in our oil costs, the environment and live a greener life all around. Please let us know your thoughts here by leaving a comment.

1 comment:

Bhakta Dave said...

This article is interesting because it highlights the fact that oil is not just used for making gasoline, it is also used to make plastic bags and plastic bottles. For some reason, people think very narrowly about this issue; almost equating oil with cars and gasoline, as if oil has no use beyond this.

In a worst-case-scenario it would seem that without oil, we wouldn't be able to drive our cars around. But in truth, we wouldn't be able to do a lot of things.

No oil= no driving of cars, no flying of planes, no travel by ships/boats, no fuel for our factories, no manufacturing, etc., etc. Needless to say, oil is vital to the industrial machine. While we have explored alternative fuel sources for automobiles, what about the other hundred products and services that depend on oil? Do we have alternatives in mind for these items as well?

A fourth grade class compiled a list of all the uses of oil here:

Considering that people are already alarmed at our "dependence on oil", how will things look in the future? Oil is not a finite resource yet we seem to be using it more and more. We are becoming slaves to it and someday it will be gone. What then?

In a lecture, Giriraja Swami painted a bleak picture of America's future. He described a future in which our entire existence would be highly localized. There would be no travel between major cities (as walking would be the only form of transportation) and all activities would have to be done on a local level (growing food, building shelter, providing services for one another, etc). Moving goods and services over long distances, as we do today, would be impossible.

But for a devotee, this type of future is not something to be feared. In fact, it may be beneficial to our spiritual development. Throwing off the shackles of our materialistic, consumeristic, industrial culture; we could instead focus on "simple living and higher thinking".

So instead of placing our happiness and well-being at the mercy of something as temporary and fleeting as oil; I humbly request that we all try to connect up with the one thing that eternally exists, Krishna.