6 December 2018
The Materials of Plastic Straws
The discovery of fossil fuels revolutionized the world and lead to a wide range of new materials which included plastic straws. Plastic straws are defined as “a prepared tube used to suck a beverage out of a container” and were first patented in 1966 by sweetheart plastic . Plastic straws however, have been a very controversial topic in recent times as people have started to question their place in society. While the materials that go into plastic straws are very cheap and widespread, their negative environmental impact out ways their practicality in society. The energy required to process the materials is wasteful, and is often not recycled properly. Compared to other alternatives (such as paper), the materials of plastic straws require a lot of energy to be processed and extracted; which often has a harmful impact on the environment.
As the name suggests, the primary material in plastic straws is of course, plastic. The process of making plastic starts with the extraction of oil, which is tedious and uses a lot of energy. Before companies can even start drilling, teams of scientists have to survey the area and determine: whether there is oil to be found, the environmental impact of drilling there, and the boundaries of the oil sight. This process alone is extremely lengthy and requires the oil companies to pay a lot of money (an example of wasted resources). Once they get an approval from the scientists, the oil companies can start preparing/clearing the land for extraction, which, is an example of negative environmental impact. Not only do they have to clear the land, but because water is used in the process of extracting oil, oil companies either have to use; a natural source of water close by, or dig a well, both of which require energy (in the form of transportation) and cause more harm to the environment. Next the company has to actually drill the hole and test the area to make sure the hole is in the right place. Then finally, the company can extract the oil using an oil rig powered by electric motors and diesel. The entire process of extracting oil for plastic requires hundreds if not thousands of man hours and an abundance of resources which all contributes to its overall wastefulness and poor use of energy.
Before plastic engineers can turn the extracted oil into plastic, they first have to refine it. This is done when “the crude oil is transported via a pipeline to an oil refinery. It is then heated up to hundreds of degrees, sent up a fractional distillation column, a tower that separates the oil’s thousands of components using condensation or boiling-point techniques”. This results in several different materials being produced but the main one for plastic is Naphtha. Its final step before being made into plastic is called cracking. “Cracking is the fragmentation of naphtha’s big hydrocarbon molecules into smaller, and thus more easily processed, sections. First, the crude oil is mixed with water vapour. The melange is then heated to 800°C, then very quickly cooled down to 400°C. The tiny molecules obtained (molecules with 2 to 7 carbon atoms called monomer’s) will be used to make chains called polymers, plastic’s basic building blocks.” This entire process of transporting the oil, then refining it through boiling and cooling uses a great deal of energy and is not efficient. Whenever heating is involved, the process is never efficient because heat by nature lets out more energy than can be harvested. This has been observed throughout history and even with modern technology, at most heating is 35-40% efficient. As a result, the process of refining oil to be used for plastic is a waste of energy and is not efficient enough to justify its use in society.
The main type of plastic used in plastic straws is called Polypropylene. This is a thermoplastic that has a lot of advantages for the people who produce it, but can have an overall harmful impact. “Polypropylene was discovered in 1954 by the Italian chemist Giulio Natta and his assistant Paolo Chini”. Then, “commercial production of polypropylene by Hercules Incorporated, Montecatini, and the German Farbwerke Hoechst AG began in 1957.” Polypropylene is known best for its: flexibility, slipperiness, resistance to moisture, and strength which is why, “the current global demand for the material generates an annual market of about 45 million metric tons and it is estimated that the demand will rise to approximately 62 million metric tons by 2020”. All of these positive traits is also why manufactures (specifically those who manufacture plastic straws) use this material so frequently. However, the high demand for polypropylene is a main example of why it can be such a harmful material. Along with all of the energy use discussed earlier in the extraction and processing oil to make plastic, to create polypropylene, scientists have to use another production process. “Polypropylene is made from the polymerization of propylene gas in the presence of a catalyst system.... Polymerization conditions (temperature, pressure and reactant concentrations) are set by the polymer grade to be produced.” These processes, “are taking place either in a gas-phase (fluidized bed or stirred reactor) or a liquid-phase process (slurry or solution).” However, the gas phase is more often used as it is a more economical option (See images 1 and 2). After it has been processed, the resulting powder is transported to a powder silo where it is turned into pellets by incorporating “well-dispersed additives”. This overall process results in an immense loss of energy because the heating and cooling of a material (as well as all of the transportation involved) is very inefficient as most of the energy put into the system is wasted in the form of excess heat. Not only does the process of making polypropylene have its disadvantages, the material itself also comes with its setbacks. These mainly being its high susceptibility to UV degradation, oxidization, and its high flammability. In general, while polypropylene is a useful material, it wastefulness in energy consumption makes it an overall harmful material.
Another set of materials that go into the production of plastic straws are plasticizers. Plasticizers are colourless and odorless liquids, that give plastic the flexibility and softness which it is known for. Plasticizers, “are produced by reacting an alcohol (such as isononanol or 2-propylheptanol) with an acid….. Different alcohols and different acids will lead to plasticisers exhibiting different degrees of permanence, performance and compatibility”. This process is yet another example of energy waste because the chemical reactions taking place release an excess amount of heat. Heat is a main form of energy; and, as seen in many other examples, is often lost which makes the entire process inefficient. Another aspect to consider in this process are the different chemicals being used in the chemical reactions. The chemicals themselves have had to be harvested and processed so that they are able to be used. And while this report is not going to dive into the specifics of the chemicals, it is important to know a lot of energy goes into even the tiniest processes when considering the overall energy needed to make a plastic straw. While plasticizers have been extensively tested over the past 60 years, and are for the most part safe, “some low molecular weight ortho-phthalates have been classified as potential endocrine disruptors with some developmental toxicity reported”. Basically, there have been reports of plasticizers causing hormone damage which can result in cancer, tumors, and birth defects. While these are indeed very rare, it is important to acknowledge them as possible harmful side effects. Overall, plasticizers do serve their place when making plastic straws, but their wastefulness of energy and possible harmful side effects make them a potential hazard in society.
A final material used in the production of plastic straws is plastic colourant. As the name suggests, plastic colourants are what give plastics their different colors. However, they can also negatively affect certain properties of plastic if not properly applied. Plastic colourants can either be in the form of pigments or dyes depending on the base polymer being used. It is important to know this when deciding between pigments or dyes because it can help preserve the color in an object(the longer the product lasts, the less wasteful it is and can be reused). In general though, “since pigment is basically foreign matter contaminating molded products, it never has any good influence on their properties”. This again translates to the idea of how plastic straws are very wasteful. By adding a plastic colourant to plastic straws, the person is lowering its lifespan, resulting in more plastic straws having to be produced to supplement the lack of plastic straws in circulation. The outcome of this is more energy waste and weaker materials not meant to last. While plastic colourants give plastic straws their vibrant colors that make them appealing, they add to their overall wastefulness and misuse in society.
In conclusion, the materials, and all of the processes that go into them, make plastic straws extremely wasteful. The excess energy that is not used is damaging to the environment in the form of greenhouse gasses and wasted potential. When researching this project, I was able to find most of the information fairly easy as the materials (and their processes) are such major parts of our society that the information is readily available. The only information that was hard to find or ambiguous was the specific processes for refining some of the materials, however, I was able to get enough information in order to get the main ideas. In general, plastic straws do not serve a purpose in society anymore and their negative effects on the environment make them a hazard to each and everyone one of us.
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SAS 43 Section 02
21 November, 2018
Plastic Straws Lifecycle: Energy
After a long and exhausting week, the first choice that we often make sitting down at a restaurant for a much needed night out is: “what would you like to drink?” After blanking staring at the menu for what seems like an eternity and eventually ordering the same thing we always do, your drink of choice comes to the table and you quickly begin to slurp it all down. However, there’s a part which came to the table which you didn’t essentially order, the object which is basically an extra step in quenching your thirst: the plastic straw. But why? Why don’t we even flinch at the plastic straw which is brought to our table? Plastic straws are a completely negligible part of our consumer based society, something which wouldn’t even be noticed if it were gone. Essentially, the amount of energy which goes into manufacturing plastic straws from cradle to grave, especially in the production and end life phases, is nowhere near worth the product which it produces. Considering that energy used to manufacture the amount of plastic straws used in the U.S. per day could power more than 500 homes for a year, it would be much more beneficial to move that energy, elsewhere, or better yet, to not use it at all.
During my research, it beneficial to account for the fact that there have been life cycle analyses of plastic straws before , yet they were not very detailed when it comes to specific figures. Furthermore, much of the data on the energy which goes into plastic products in general are considered in a life cycle analysis. This means that each study may also have differing data based on the system boundaries set. However, all the data gathered is applicable on an averaged basis and each study doesn’t stray very far from each other in terms of raw data. With that said, the first part which must be considered when it comes to the energy within a plastic straw is where is all begins: the raw materials.
Just as we consider how much effort really goes into sucking up our favorite drink through a little plastic straw, the amount of energy which goes into attaining the raw materials is hardly ever considered. Straws, being made polypropylene, which itself is made from propene and monomers, is obtained from crude oil and hydrocarbons. Petroleum, which is a mix of hydrocarbons and crude oil, is found trapped between layers of rock. These hydrocarbons began their formation more than 50 million years ago, from a combination of biochemical activity and high pressure from the thick sediment, and moved through the layers due to the plate movements. There are two methods by which this substance is usually obtained: drilling and fracking. In drilling, a company may drill down vertically into permeable rock to reach the oil, and the pressure brings it to the surface. In fracking, a bore is drilled down at least 2 km, turned horizontal, drilled another 3 km, and then the gap between the borehole and rocks is seal. After the bore is drilled, a water chemical mixture is pumped at extremely high pressures, over 600 atmospheres, to crack the rock, releasing the fluids. Once the pressure is released, the oil comes flowing into the installed wellhead, after which the drilling equipment is taken away. The oil is then transported to be distilled, separating the parts with different boiling points as well removing as the sulphuric compounds under high temperatures in a chemical reaction. This entire process not only involves chemical and gravitational energies in forming the crude oil, but also large amounts of energy in drilling, processing, human effort, and hydrocarbons themselves. In obtaining crude oil, the energy per each source in MJ per tonne of oil is: 55.0 electricity (33% efficiency), 132.0 fuel oil, 25.3 gasoline, and 105.6 natural gas, totaling 318 MJ/tonne. The figures for natural gas extraction, in MJ per tonne, are: 33.1 electricity (33% efficiency), 103.4 fuel oil, 66.4 gasoline, and 868.0 natural gas, totaling 1030 MJ/tonne. The electricity may come from back pressure turbines, steam turbines, gas turbines, or even the public grid, which are 88%, 64%, 62%, and 35% efficiency respectively. This vast amount of energy for extraction must follow the hydrocarbons to its next step: processing.
These million year old hydrocarbons, however, must meet up with the multitude of different additives which go into the plastic. The purpose of additives within plastic are spread a wide range of functions, but the main groups of these additives include plasticizers, antioxidants, and dyes. In total, plasticizers, fillers, and flame retardants comprise ¾ of all additives used. Furthermore, each of these groups has some specific utility within the plastic, whether it’s adding color, to increasing resistance and enhancing properties such as: plasticity, fluidity, efficiency, durability, insulation, or overall longevity of the product. Furthermore, these additives are often used in combination, so it may be advantageous to assume the energy as accumulative. The pigments used are insoluble inorganic salts or oxides, however the process in making these is was difficult to find, likely due to proprietary reasons, and they function by making electrons give off energy as they hit, thus emitting light. Dyes, on the other hand, are an absorbed color, soluble, and are a petrol compound, which must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Since the energy for obtaining petrol was already given, the energy for dye’s primary material is likely similar. The overall process for plasticizers is an exothermic reaction, often above 200℃, which is then washed twices, steam stripped, washed again, and then dehydrated and filtered. This means there is energy not only in the heating, but also in the reaction, washing, and generation of steam. The specific energy requirements of each process was not given, nor the means by which each reaction takes place, also the technology differs for each process. However, it is intuitive to assume there is a vast amount of energy required in reaction, due to the high heats, washing, separating, dehydrating, etc. With the additives prepared, they may finally be used to form the polymer used with in straws.
As stated, polypropylene is the primary polymer used within plastic straws, which means the energy used in forming it is integral to the overall energy of the product as a whole. Polypropylene is made up of propene and comonomers, often made with three different phases: gas phase, bulk, and slurry. The most widely used process, and the one most focused on by studies, is the gas phase, as it is the most economic and efficient, and it involves fluidised polymer particles stirring and passing the gas at a high speed through a pressure about 2 Mpa. In forming polypropylene, the monomer is polymerized, sent through a reactor train, separated from the diluent, degassed, mixed with additives, pelletized, and then stored while purging and recycling waste along the way. In pelletization, a screw extruder is used which heats, cuts, and quenches the polymer. This entire process takes 20.4 MJ/kg and the feedstock energy and the energy for the feedstock is 52.6 MJ/kg. Furthermore, the requirements for 1000 kg of polypropylene is 4 GJ electricity, 1050 kg propylene, 75 kg oil, and 61 kg natural gas. However, the energy for forming polypropylene depends on many factors including location, date, tech used, and the study as a whole. One such study, analyzing the gross energy requirement of polypropylene, found the energy to be 63.2 GJ/tonne, which is equivalent to 63.2 MJ/kg, in 1988. That said, it is fairly safe to say that the energy to make polypropylene, which includes feedstock and processing, is around and even above 60-70 MJ/kg of polypropylene as even though that’s what the data centralized around, those studies don’t consider energy used for transport or within the mechanisms processing the petrol and chemicals, just the feedstock and process. Now that the polymer is ready to shipped off, weather it be in pellets, flakes, or some other form, it may finally be made into straws.
Finally, with all the preliminary processes out of the way, the energy used to make our all too familiar plastic member can be analyzed. The formation of straws often involves extrusion which is the process by which plastic pellets are fed into a hopper, which goes into the extruder, which is a long heated chamber which moves the contents along via a revolving screw. The plastic is melted through a combination of the mechanical work from the screw and the hot sidewall metal. At the end of the chamber, the molten plastic is extruded into the desired shape through a small opening which is then cooled by air and water and finally cut to length. The straws which are made have a diameter of 6 mm, and a length of 225 mm, weighing 6 g per 10 straws. The temperature of the extruder must be kept at between 210℃ and 212℃ while the entire mechanism revolves at above 19 Hz. The electrical energy used for this entire process had a mean of 7.220 per 10 straws, as the study did not state the unit, I’ll assume it was 7.220 KJ from here on as it’s a fairly small product. Though is a fairly small amount of energy, remember how small and abundant the product is, which means the energy adds up quickly. Before the straws reach the market, however, they must be packaged up, which has its own energy associated with the process.
The packaging of a straw, which is the easy tear away means by which we protect ourselves from those nasty germs may be in the form of paper, plastic, or cardboard. Since I’ve listed much of the energy which goes into a plastic product, with the only difference being the final formation, the energy for plastic packaging is likely very similar, so I’ll mainly focus on paper packaging. Within the paper industry, ⅔ of the energy consumption is for heat generation, which comes from a boiler, and the last third is used for electricity, which may come from gas, coal, hydroelectric, or nuclear depending on the location and needs. Furthermore, since the paper industry’s primary raw material is a means of fuel, they produce up to ½ of their own energy. The overall energy for fabricating paper varies, from 30 to 50 GJ/tonne of product, depending on the product, process, transportation means, etc. The overall process is as such: it begins with the wood or recovered material, it’s pulped (or mashed up), cleaned and sorted, refined, bleached, stored and blended, formed and pressed, pre dried, sized and laminated, dried again, calendered, and then finally removed of all the water. Furthermore, the preparation of the material involves removing all of the impurities, which takes about 2.6 MJ/kg. Over the entire process, not including the energy for materials it ranged from 9.4 to 14.7 MJ/kg. Moreover, paper industries own their own forests, so there must be energy which goes into maintaining the land. Overall, the energy depends on the process and location, as to make cardboard, the energy in GJ/tonne between the U.S., U.K., and Netherlands is 40.8, 60.0, and 18.8 respectively. With the straw packaged and ready to be shipped, it may be shipped out to any restaurant or store, used, and then immediately throw out, reaching the final stage in its lifecycle.
The ending phase of a plastic straw’s life comes within mere moments of its use, considering that reusing them isn’t necessarily common, and its end may come in the forms of landfill, recycling, or incineration. Before the plastics may even reach any of these stages, however, it must be collected. In collecting plastics, they may either be dropped off a specific facility, or collected curbside via a commercial company and dropped off at a facility, where it can be sorted from there, of course it can just as easily become litter. The method most obviously tied to energy is incineration, which directly involves generating heat.
Incineration is the method by which energy is recovered, as it involves thermal treatment, and utilizing the calorific value, which is 44 KJ/g, and to generate electricity. Furthermore, incineration is the only method by which the size of plastic waste is thoroughly reduced. Within the process of incineration, the plastics are heated to temperatures above 850℃ with the use of environmental controls and filters. However, there are several parts of this process which stand in the way of this being a viable option, which at the forefront is the fact that the process is inefficient (meaning there is no net positive of energy), as the energy which is derived is not greater than the input, also it requires a large amount of emissions controls and advanced technology. Furthermore, the plastics must be sorted thoroughly as to utilize their full potential, as opposed to the 10 KJ/g which comes from the general waste. Moreover, incineration doesn’t always necessarily involve energy recovery, being more of a way to reduce the shear amount of waste, as such the next phase to analyze would be the means by which the material is reused: recycling.
Recycling is the process in which recovered material is used to make some new product, where there are four different types: primary, a mechanical process forming a product with equal properties, secondary, a mechanical process forming a product with lesser properties, tertiary, a recovery of the chemical constituents, and quarterrary, which is the recovery of energy. The least likely form of recycling, and the least common, is primary recycling, due to the heterogeneity, contamination, age, and overall hopelessness of the recovery of usable plastic from the municipal waste stream. Furthermore, plastics for recycling are often shipped to countries with low environmental standards, as China receives 56% of all recyclables for recycling. To begin the process of recycling, sorting, which is both manual and automated, is the most important step, which is followed in importance by decontamination. Separating contaminants involves removing paints and coatings through the use of grinding, using a solvent, or hot water which contains cleaning agents. After decontamination, the plastics may be shredded, mixed with other polymers, washed, dried, gathered together, extruded, and finally pelletized. The energy used in this process is similar that used in extruding plastic, but it involves extra energy in sorting, decontaminating, washing, and collection of the material. Furthermore, it’s assumed that this reformed plastic is not reused in making straws due to its possible contamination and lowered value from the mixing of plastic types. The entire process of shredding and extruding had an energy requirement of at least 954 MJ/tonne of recycled plastics, which does depend on the facility. However, the energy to process that amount of plastic is a mixture of plastics, so not just polypropylene, and it doesn’t consider the energy needed for all the other processes. The tertiary recycling of plastics, which is the depolymerization of the product, involves temperatures reaching up to 1500℃, depending on the method and furnace used, which can be done in the absence of oxygen. The process of energy recovery is the same as incineration, and all of these forms of recycling have a high energy requirement associated with them. However, these are not the means by which a majority of the plastics reach their end. In fact, anywhere from 22% to about 80% of plastics end up in a landfill, and for polypropylene it’s even worse: in the U.S. only .9% of non durable polypropylene plastics, which plastic straws are, was recycled.
The energy to maintain plastics in a landfill is very linear, as the process is mainly collection of the waste, transport to the landfill, and then maintenance of the landfill. However there are several unintended consequences of this basic process. For one, plastics don’t biodegrade, and instead merely fragment due to ultraviolet rays, which means they accumulate rather than decompose. This means as more and more landfills become full, more landfills are required to accumulate for the build up, this is likely why we have a total of 1738 landfills with in the U.S.. Furthermore, due to the lightweight nature of the plastic as well as the overall carelessness of people it’s likely to end up in the environment. This refuse in nature is often spread around by the conditions, especially by the winds and currents of the ocean, meaning plastics has been found in all major ocean basins. The impact in the energy is felt from the multitudes of clean ups and surveys done to analyze the impact on the environment and it’s often ingested by organisms which in itself can have even larger consequences. After looking back on the entire lifecycle of a plastic straw, there was one fundamental part which ties each phase together: the transportation.
Transportation is apparent within every phase of the life cycle: from moving workers, equipment, and most importantly the materials from phase to phase. The extraction, and thus the energy, of the primary fuel source of transportation is much the same as plastics, as they’re both derived from petroleum. In moving the raw petrol to distilleries, often times either a pipeline, which uses natural gas in the compressor, or distillate fuel, diesel, vehicles due to the sheer quantity and mass of material being moved. The factories which process many of the materials into their next stage often receive materials and ship out the product either by barge, rail car, or tanker truck. The energy used in the common modes of shipping in MJ/(tKm) are: .37 cargo ship, 15.9 air cargo, .23 by rail, 3.5 by truck, and 6.8 by medium truck. However, the energy embodied in the material of each of these methods must also be considered. Plastics are often used in vehicles, but so is iron, steel, and aluminum, each of which has a energy requirement to merely produce it of 32 GJ/t, 47 GJ/t, and 250 GJ/t respectively. It must also be considered that energy is much higher due to the fact that extraction and smelting of the raw materials must also be considered. Putting it all together, the cumulative energy needed to make a vehicle weighing 1532 kg is about 34 GJ, which also varies based on a variety of factors. Furthermore, it’s important to bear in mind that the distance and method of transportation affects the energy usage, which is especially apparent in the end phase of plastics, as if they are to be disposed of in a proper manner, and not just dumped across the environment, than they must be carried to a facility, weather it be a landfill or recycling facility. In the case of moving plastics from a remote location, such as yellowstone, to a recycling facility, it involves transporting, usually by truck a long distance. The total journey started with 162.5 miles to Butte, Colorado, then 315.18 miles to Spokane, Washington, and finally 432.51 miles to Calgary, Canada. The fuel used in each of these processes was 28.82 gal/ton of plastic, 2.415 gal/ton, and 3.382 gal/ton respectively. However, if the materials were transported across the ocean, which often times they are for disposal, than the energy would be much higher. Transport is truly the process which ties all the energy requirements together, from start to finish.
With all this information, where does it leave us? To begin, using an extremely rough estimate of 500 million straws a day in the U.S. (this number was formulated by a nine year old Milo Cress who started the Straw Free Campaign in 2009) to calculate the energy used in a day for straws to put it into perspective. To begin, the weight of all these straws, using the data of ten straws weighing 6 grams, would be 300,000,000 grams, or 300,000 kilograms, or 300 metric tonnes. Assuming that. At best, an equal amount of polypropylene is used, which would be 300,000 kg resin, and using the data that 1.565 kg is equal to 1 kg polypropylene, this leaves 469,500 kg fossil fuel. For straws, if the gross energy requirement was 63.2 J/tonne for polypropylene was used, that means for the 300,000 kg of polypropylene, 18,960 GJ, or 18,960,000 MJ would be used just for the polypropylene. Then, using the processing energy for straws, if 10 straws use 7.220 KJ to be made, this means 3,610,000,000 KJ, or 361000 MJ, or 361 GJ was used in total. Furthermore, if merely 1/100 of the weight was in paper packaging, that would equal 3000 kg, and using the low estimate of 30 GJ/tonne total energy for paper production, this would equal 90 GJ. Since polypropylene has a low recycle rate, I’ll assume that all of these straws end up in a landfill which will mainly contribute to transportation energy. To begin, the size of the United States is about 3.8 million square miles, and if there is an equal distribution of landfills, that means there is one every 2186.421 sq miles, or 5662.804 sq km. Assuming that these are distributed as squares, I’ll use a distance of 75.251km as the nearest distance (square root of 5662.804, which is also likely a low estimate) for not only disposal, but also transporting the raw materials. Using an average of the energy values for rail cars, medium and heavy trucks, this means that 79.209 GJ would be used for both transporting polypropylene as well as straws to a landfill. Furthermore, this would mean, using the 469,500 kg of fossil fuels, 123.962 GJ of energy would be used to transport the fossil fuels. Adding it all up, this means a total of 19,693.38 GJ of energy is used per day for plastic straws, which, using the average U.S. house consumption of 10,399 kwh per year, or 37.4364 GJ would equal the yearly energy consumption of 526 U.S. households.
This is an absolutely absurd amount of energy to use, per day, for something that is completely not necessary. Bear in mind this figure is based off many estimates and assumptions, but it also does not include some figures that I could not find. For example, finding the exact energy used in transporting the material was very difficult, due to the varying nature. Furthermore, some of the figures just weren’t there, which was why I merely listed the process without any actual figures. Moreover, there are so many more figures which I left out, like the energy use of the workers in the factories, the energy used overall in oil fields, the amount of energy which is used in storage etc. However, with all of these considerations, this is still a wildly high amount of energy to use for something which is in no way necessary. Even if the amount of straws used was ⅕ of the estimate from Milo, that would mean 105 households could be powered for one year from the energy used in making straws in a day. Why should we keep letting this little plastic figure keep sucking from our already doomed society? Put down the straw and drink from the glass, as was intended.
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November 18, 2018
Life Cycle Paper: Plastic Straws
The plastic straw, an unnecessary simple machine that makes our drinking needs just that much easier, makes a bigger environmental impact than the small footprint it portrays in the human hand. The life cycle of the plastic straw highlights this fact in which the oversight of the effect with this product is one that needs to be refocused so the waste and emissions of this product is realized. This paper will focus on the waste and emission aspect of the plastic straw’s design life cycle illustrating that on a global scale a straw has more effect than one person would have ever thought before. While only about as long as your hand, the plastic straw may seem like a harmless use for plastic. Though, what many fail to realize is the waste of these simple objects accumulate rapidly over a short span which can create statistics that may seem astronomical for only such a little thing. Overall, the waste of the plastic straw can be broken down into the CO2 emissions from the factories in which the plastic straws are produced, the CO2 emissions from transportation, landfill usage, and the percent of plastic straws recycled.
To start, plastic straws are made from a polypropylene (PP) in which this raw material has wastes and emissions associated with its creation and use. Out of all of the plastics that are available to produce straws, where does polypropylene fit in? Polypropylene is a special type of plastic in which it has the ability to bend easier than other plastics associated with it. Therefore, this material is able to create living hinges, where it is able to be bent and regain its structure eliminating the need for an actual hinge, and even be woven into certain fabrics (Creative Mechanisms Staff). This is why the plastic straw evolved from this raw material as it allows the manufacturer to put kinks into the straw giving it the ability to bend back and forth to the drinker’s desired position. With this raw material in mind there are multiple processes that the manufacturer can go through in order to create a product. These processes include extrusion, which takes plastic pellets or granules down a long heated chamber moving in a continuous screw like motion then forced out into a small die to create the finished product, injection molding, which takes plastic pellets or granules and melts them down to then inject them into a cool mold where the part is then made, blow molding, which is usually used in conjunction with extrusion or injection molding and after that process then air is blown into the part to hollow the middle and expand the walls in the finished product, and rotational molding, which takes plastic granules in a mold that is then compressed, heated, and rotated till the mold is covered then it is cooled to create the end product (“Plastics”). Depending on the manufacturer the process can be different in producing plastic straws but these processes listed above are the general overview of how polypropylene is manufactured to then create different plastic products. With this overview of the raw material, the focus can now be shifted more onto the development, transportation, and waste of the plastic straw.
The creation and manufacturing of plastic straws have many different processes that although could be more clean, inherently are not. To begin, the solid wastes that emerge just simply from plastic creation is “around 4 percent of world oil and gas production, a non-renewable resource, [which] is used as feedstock for plastics and a further 3–4% is expended to provide energy for their manufacture” (Hopewell). This brings to light the solid waste of plastic manufacturing which uses about 8% of the world's oil reserves just to make these objects. With the known usage for fuel in cars, planes, trains, and other vehicles that use this source for energy, electricity generation with natural gas, or gas usage in your everyday lives especially in cooking appliances, this loss of 8% for this material is a big burden for us to pay. Not only do solid waste emerge but there are also environmental effects through gaseous wastes as emissions from the process of taking hydrocarbon fuels to the creation of plastic straws. First, polypropylene itself needs to be manufactured from crude oil, coal, natural gas, or other hydrocarbon fuels that are broken down into carbon monomers then chained back together in order to get carbon polymers and then in the right sequence the creation of polypropylene. This new raw material then needs to be transported to the site of plastic straw manufacturing. The manufacturing and transportation of polypropylene emits 1.439 kilograms of CO2 or CO2 equivalent emissions (kgCO2e) per 1 kg of weight of the end product (Boonniteewanich). Continuing on, the manufacturing process for plastic straws is that of extrusion. This takes plastic pellets or granules down a decreasing heat chamber that forces the molten plastic down in a screw like pattern till pressed out of a small die that encompasses the shape of the plastic straw and is then air cooled till back into a solid state (Boonniteewanich) (“Plastics”). This process takes energy to run in which that energy comes from fossil fuels and therefore creates emissions that are not beneficial to the environmental health of our Earth. The extruding of straws creates 0.1483 kgCO2e and the flexible straw manufacturing creates 0.02581 kgCO2e which in total means that the pure manufacturing processes of plastic straws emit 0.17411 kgCO2e per 1 kg (Boonniteewanich). While this is a lot less emission waste as compared to polypropylene creation and transportation, in the grand scheme still has a heavy factor on the emissions from this product. Overall, coming from the hydrocarbon fuels to the creation of flexible straws has emissions of 1.61311 kgCO2e per 1 kg. Not only does the manufacturing part of the straw cause damage to our environment but also the transportation to stores and to customers in general emits emissions.
As many know, the distribution of goods, for a long time in the carbon era we live in, have emissions that have a negative impact on our world. The negative impacts that we are only now beginning to realize the effects it has consists predominantly of those of CO2 gas emissions especially, from automobiles. This is exactly where the transportation of the plastic straw has wastes. The trucks, planes, and other means of transportation that are used to take the plastic straws from the manufacturing plant to stores and other places of commerce for consumers. For this transportation there is a 0.001844 kgCO2e per 1 kg emission that is given off (Boonniteewanich). As compared to the manufacturing of straws there is significantly less emissions. On the other hand, from the oil to plastic straws in stores there is 1.614954 kgCO2e emissions which is gives a ratio that is greater than 1.5:1 in emission to product weight and the product has not even been touched by customers yet. This in of itself is not a good statistic to be had as most emissions and waste factors comes from the waste management of the product in which we have not even reached yet. At least, distribution is the last step before waste management so there is no more emissions until the end of the life cycle of the product.
Landfill, incineration, and recycling are the main ways that the plastic straw ends its life cycle. With these ways there are emissions and wastes that are attached to each method in their own ways. Of course, recycling is the best option allowing energy to be reused from the energy put into the straws to then be put into a new different product. Even though, this is the best option not every straw gets recycled especially due to the fact that most people just default to throwing away the straw as it would never cross your mind to recycle it. Therefore when looking at the disposal of plastic straws we find that the landfill and incineration are the two options. Landfill emissions are 3.245 kgCO2e and incineration emissions are 2.449 kgCO2e which gives us final emissions at 4.85994 kgCO2e when plastic straws are disposed of in landfill and 4.063954 kgCO2e when incinerated (Boonniteewanich). This illustrates how bad for the environment plastic straws are for all of the plastic straws that we use. In the end of the life cycle of the plastic straw there is over a 4:1 ratio in kg of emission to kg of product which doesn’t include the harsher chemicals that are emitted when incinerated or the landfill space that is taken up on top of this emission value. Though, at least for incineration there is some energy that can be regained as when the materials are burned off that energy could be captured and put towards other uses like creating electricity through steam turbines or heating purposes but, this requires an extensive infrastructure which many countries including the US don’t really have. While there could be potential with incineration to at least gain some energy back, recycling has the most promising returns yet, is not the go to option. Recycling can be broken down into three sections: mechanical recycling, feedstock recycling, and source reduction (“Plastics”). Mechanical recycling is the classic type of recycling that we all know where you take the one material then break it down or melt it down to create a new product out of that same original material of the old product. Feedstock recycling takes many types of plastics and melts them under a vacuum where then the plastics can be broken down back into their carbon monomers in which they can be rebuilt to make new plastics from scratch. Lastly, source reduction is where simply the manufacturers just reduce the use of these products to the smallest amount possible in order to not use as much materials and will therefore cut down on waste. These methods would allow us to reverse the trend and still rely on plastic for a material of our choice; “In US, PSW (plastic solid waste) found in MSW (material solid waste) has increased from 11% in 2002 to 12.1% in 2007” (Al-Salem). This continues to emphasize that plastic waste are accumulating in our landfills and not being repurposed into other means that could better our environment. As well, this indicates the waste factor of these plastics where they are taking up around 12% of landfill in the United States which poses a great threat dues to the forever shrinking amount of landfill space that we have on this Earth. While plastic straws don’t make up the entire total of plastic solid waste what we can find through plastic solid waste data is the lack of recycling that we have towards plastics.
The recycling aspect of plastic has the least amount of focus yet, the greatest returns available to our society and environmental health as a whole. In order to change the way that people view our environment recycling needs to become our point of focus to get the energy we put into straws into other materials and processes. With the disposability of the plastic straw there are not usually continued uses for this object. Almost every time a straw is a single time use: unwrap, drink, and then throw away. With this mentality set into people we find that many straws just go straight into the trash. This impacts the waste aspect seen in plastic straws as it is estimated that “Americans use every day: 500 million. If you put the yearly total in a line, it would wrap around the Earth two and a half times” (Siniauer). This fact alone is astronomical as the use of plastic straws which are mainly put into our landfill is enough to stretch around the whole 2.5 times and that is only in a year. This coupled with the lack of recycling of the plastic straw as seen in “a study carried out in the UK found that the amount of packaging in a regular shopping basket that, even if collected, cannot be effectively recycled, ranged from 21 to 40%” (Hopewell). As a waste product plastic straws can not really be recycled due simply because they are too small and cannot be used with the current machines today to be processed and recycled. This correlates to large amounts of greenhouses gases, as discussed above, when they could be seriously reduced with new technology to allow straws to be actually go through the process of recycling when people actively try to recycle their straws. Not only, would this benefit the environment but also due to the flexibility of polypropylene itself would allow it to be put into better use than just that of a landfill. Though it is not all on technology but also mankind as a whole in which polypropylene is “not widely recycled yet from post-consumer, but has potential” (Hopewell). This would allow the pressure to be put onto engineers or other people in order to create the machines to be able recycle straws and other like small items. As of now, there is no pressure as people don’t decide to recycle these items. In general, the life cycle of the plastic straw is one of those that when more detailed becomes an unruly site in which people need to focus more on the use and disposal of plastics in order to keep our environment from getting any worse than it already is. Though on the bright side the recycling of not only plastic straws but plastics in general have increased over the years which is going towards a better state of environmental health.
From the beginning of hydrocarbon fuels, to polypropylene manufacturing and transportation, to distribution and disposal of plastic straws, the life cycle of plastic straws highlights the wastes and emissions of these processes and proves that even the smallest and least thought about products can have such a massive impact on the environmental health of our world. Though, with the continued knowledge of how greenhouse gasses can affect the environment there have been many initiatives to improve the world recycling especially when it comes to the plastic straw. For example, major companies have jumped on board with this movement to reduce plastic straw waste in particular where “Starbucks announced Monday it will be getting rid of plastic straws within two years. The company will use straws made from biodegradable materials like paper as a replacement” (Rochita). Not only have companies but also there are new initiatives bringing people together to start change in this world such as The Last Plastic Straw initiative. Though going away from land and looking towards the sea there has been found many things wrong; “80% of all marine debris found in the ocean is land based, and 80-90% of the marine debris is made from plastic” (Nunez). This has brought attention and has hit home to the masses of people where more and more people are looking for small ways that can make a big impact on future that our next generations will live in. One of the small ways that will make an impact is to next time ask for no straw before the restaurant, coffee house, family member, or friend gives you one. This small action could make a world of a difference.
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