Tuesday, July 16, 2019

econlife - How Legos Discovered It’s Not Easy to be Green by Elaine Schwartz

Many of us are happy to use fewer plastic straws. But elsewhere, it’s tougher to cut back.

Bio-Based Plastic Legos

We know what we expect from a Lego. They all match, attach, and detach perfectly. The colors of all the reds, the greens, and the blues are consistent. Falling, they are supposed to remain attached (mine never do) and they should not biodegrade or contain harmful chemicals.

Since plastic makes their precision possible, the goal is a plant-based plastic that creates fewer emissions than petroleum. So far, Lego has successfully made bio-based plastic foliage and dragon wings. However, the corn they tried was too soft for bricks. Wheat had color problems. And they could not achieve the perfect grip.

Below, Lego shows how they could use sugar cane:

Petroleum Products

Right now, petroleum is in an endless list of everyday products. Ranging from aglets to yarn and including tires, mops, aspirin, and crayons, the 6000+ products that contain petroleum are everywhere.

Shoelace aglets are made of petroleum based plastic:

Meanwhile, petroleum based plastics result from natural gas processing and crude oil refining. Then, looking at crude, you can see below how an entire 42 gallon barrel is used:

Our Bottom Line: Tradeoffs

Less petroleum-based plastic could mean a smaller carbon footprint. Although the EIA said it could not calculate how much of the world’s oil is used for plastic, the amount is substantial. But using less is not so easy. As economists, that takes us to tradeoffs.

When more corn is grown for bio-based plastic, we could wind up with more pollution from fertilizers, less to eat, and higher prices. On the production side, we’ve seen from Lego that we await the breakthrough discovery that creates a functional product. And even then, discarding bio-plastic can be tough. Landfill remains a real alternative, it could be recycled, and some might go to an industrial compost site (if we were disciplined enough to set aside our compostable products). One big concern is that like petroleum-based plastic, the plant version also can wind up at sea.

So yes, as Lego has discovered, it’s not so easy to be green.

My sources and more: Like Legos, creative articles, happily, have become more typical at WSJ. From there, this list of petroleum based products was ideal. But to start understanding bio-based plastics, this National Geographic article was helpful as were this Conversation and the EIA.

Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.