About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dumpster Day

Saturday was Dumpster Day in Butte, Montana. It’s a day for recycling, sponsored by United Way, that comes every three months. And every three months the volume of stuff I generate appalls me. I alone threw away (well, saved for this day) four huge dog-food bags full of plastic, crushed to the extent possible, which is not much. Plastic dominates the piles I’ve been saving up, because paper, glass, steel, and aluminum are easier to take to the local recycling bins, which don’t accept plastic. All this plastic isn’t much by weight, but it sure is by volume.

Plastic is the hallmark of the Convenience Society. Easy to make, cheap, recyclable. It shows up in at least a dozen major sections of What Things Are Made Of. I get messages from people wanting to eliminate plastic as a way of saving oil. A nice idea, but not really valid. Plastic’s impact on the environment is a problem, but if we eliminated every bit of the plastic production in the US, it would be only a drop in the barrel of oil consumption.

One 42-gallon barrel of crude oil makes about 44 gallons of product, because during refining volumes increase. Of that final 44 gallons, 1.2 gallons make “feedstocks,” the chemical precursors to plastics, synthetic rubber, paints, petrochemicals, and more. That’s just under 3% of the products made from crude oil. Purists will add the energy cost to manufacture and distribute plastic products, which might get the total of oil consumption related to plastics up to 7%.

The point is that it’s just not that much volume. To conserve oil, forget plastic. A lot of it (such as grocery bags) is made from natural gas anyway, not oil. To conserve oil, drive less.

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