Yesterday on The PediaBlog, we learned that plastic is a petrochemical product, derived from a hydrocarbon called ethane, which is present in crude oil and natural gas. (Note to my friends and neighbors: It is ethane, not methane, that is the “prize” of the Marcellus Shale formation in Southwestern Pennsylvania.) And it is the prize for one purpose only: to make more plastic. In order to make more plastic, more ethane must be extracted, which means more drilling and fracking must occur. This is why local residents living in this region are currently witnessing the extraordinary expansion of shale gas activities on well pads where the drilling and fracking take place, and off. One might even refer to the rapidly proliferating unconventional natural gas wells, diesel truck traffic, pipelines, compressor stations, processing refineries, and transportation facilities as the supporting cast members for the principal actor, an ethane “cracker” (plastic) factory currently being built in Beaver County, with several more on the way. It is truly a petrochemical clusterfrack we have going on in these parts.
By now, most people have seen and heard about the negative impacts fracking and its supporting infrastructure can have on the health of individuals and communities. Folks traveling through can see the damage for themselves; friends and family members living or working in the gas patch tell similar stories. (If not, here is a good and credible, evidence-based summary of some of damage done.) Once extracted via drilling and fracking, ethane is transported via pipeline to ethane “cracker” factories, where ethane is chemically converted to ethylene and, ultimately, into tiny bits of plastic pieces called “nurdles.” These are packaged and then sent to factories that manufacture plastic products for consumers. The heavy industrial activity of cracking ethane into ethylene to make plastic nurdles produces an array of airborne emissions — VOCs, PAHs, CO2, and other assorted chemical acronyms — that contaminate the atmosphere both locally and globally, potentially threatening everyone’s health and well-being. For what? More plastic.
Today almost three-quarters of Americans are fully aware of and accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real and happening now. The majority of our fellow citizens agree that human activities have created this planetary climate crisis and that continued emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are making it worse. (Only 9% of Americans dismiss climate change as a “hoax” and the same small percentage remains doubtful. Only 5% are disengaged and not paying attention.) Most Americans are also aware of the major problem (a global ecologic catastrophe, actually, already in progress) of plastic pollution on this planet. Most readers of The PediaBlog and residents of Allegheny County and surrounding areas are also well aware of the region’s long-standing air pollution challenges. We reviewed that history last year, concluding:
The air might look clearer but it’s not a whole lot cleaner... Moreover, it appears that air quality in Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is about to get much worse with the buildout of fracking and petrochemical infrastructure. And one thing we surely know in the ninth year of the second decade of the twenty-first century: The closer one lives to pollution sources, and the more time one spends breathing polluted air, the worse one’s health becomes. There is no debate about that.
Practically every medical doctor, nurse, and respiratory therapist who treats patients for lung diseases and cancer would agree that we have a local and regional air pollution problem here in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Most, if not all, terrestrial and marine biologists are warning us of the global ecologic catastrophe of plastic pollution. And practically every Earth, Space, and Climate scientist on the planet is sounding the alarm on an existential planetary climate crisis. None of this is debatable any longer.
The solution to the concurrent challenges of air pollution, plastic pollution, and greenhouse gas pollution — problems that are entirely related to one another — is very simple: Stop making more of it. (Cleaning up the mess that’s already been made wouldn’t hurt either, come to think of it.) The benefits will be seen in better health, a more sustainable economy, and a livable climate system that you and I are only borrowing from our children.
The choices Southwestern Pennsylvanians face couldn’t be clearer: Business as usual vs. a cleaner (and kinder) strategy for development and prosperity; rapaciousness vs. stewardship; sickness vs. health; plastic vs. planet.
Home is a good place to start. Curdle the nurdle.