Our Food Is Protected By Fossil Fuel Derived Plastics

Protection of food and its packaging for the consumer is also heavily dependent on hydrocarbon-derived materials. All packaging methods used in handling of food have some content of hydrocarbons in their make up. In the plastic and film wrapped materials this connection is clear, but it is also true for paper, metal cans and glass containers. In paper containers the glue holding the package together, the ink used to print the label and the coating on the paper to make it waterproof are derived from hydrocarbons. Metal cans have internal coatings and seals made from hydrocarbons. Glass containers are printed with hydrocarbon inks and the cap is either a hydrocarbon plastic or metal with hydrocarbon paint and seal.

The preceding shows that compounds extracted and synthesized from hydrocarbon chemicals are irreplaceable as starting materials utilized to manufacture a whole host of products important to modern civilization. It is possible, in theory, to manufacture these organic chemicals starting with coal, corncobs, straw, wood chips or any other source of carbon even including carbon dioxide from the air. However, when starting with these materials the chemical process requires more synthesis steps and a lot of energy. Multiple step processes are costly in capitol equipment and generally have low overall yield. Profitable single step chemical reactions have yields of 60% to 90%. A process with five steps, each with a 60% yield, has an over all yield of only 7.7%. The 5-step process with a 90% yield per step has only a 60% overall yield. Multiple step reaction processes increase the potential for pollutants and waste disposal costs because the by-product material eliminated at each step is often useless waste. Multiple step processes also require much energy for the separation of the reaction products and the transfer of products from step to step. Because of these factors, producing petrochemical type products from other sources of carbon would be quite expensive and would heavily increase the volume of waste chemicals requiring recycle or disposal.

In the future, when we have burned all the high quality petroleum, the low-grade sources of fossil carbon compounds will be used to make the organic chemicals. The lower energy state of the alternate sources of carbon will raise the price of the products and increase all the attendant problems associated

Smil, Vaclav, "Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production", MIT Press2001, ISBN 0-262-19449-X

with recovery and processing low-grade resources; that is, larger mining efforts with more land damage, and increased pollution.60 If we attempted to manufacture these organic chemicals from non-hydrocarbon sources of carbon, such as the plant matter, it would be difficult to grow enough to supply both the needs for food and for chemicals. These difficulties can be partly resolved by clearing forests and exploiting other marginal farmlands. This is not useful in the end because it results in simply trading one category of environmental damage for another.

The result of our profligate burning of valuable hydrocarbons will be the escalation of their price. The high price will effectively deprive future generations of their use and the large number of valuable materials derived from them. To preserve these unique resources for future high value uses we should immediately make plans to develop other sources of energy and terminate the use of hydrocarbons as fuels. We should also maximize our recycle of these materials.

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