Universal building blocks or an environmental blight?

Universal building blocks or an environmental blight?

Petrochemicals are used to manufacture thousands of vital products that people use every day – nearly everything not made from rocks, plants, other living things or metal. How does this wonder medium live up to SHEQ standards? JACO DE KLERK investigates.

The trade association American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) – which represents virtually all United States (US) based manufacturers of fuels (from diesel to home heating oil) and petrochemicals – points out that these everyday products include everything made of plastic, medicines and medical devices, cosmetics, furniture, appliances, TVs and radios, computers, parts used in every mode of transportation, solar power panels and wind turbines.

“Petrochemicals are also the building blocks for body armour and other high-tech materials that are used to protect police officers, firefighters and the men and women in our armed forces,” AFPM relates. “In addition, petrochemicals are the key raw materials that keep you safe while driving in your car, and make modern communications possible.”

There are more than 4 000 products classified as petrochemicals. These are derived from ethane, propane, butane and other hydrocarbons extracted from crude oil and natural gas liquids (which isn’t too renowned for its “green” properties).

This wonder medium isn’t without its dangers however. “Petrochemicals and their by-products, such as dioxin, are known to cause an array of serious health problems, including cancer and endocrine disruption (interference with hormones within your body),” Natural Pure Organics, a US company that deals in organic personal-care products, notes on its website. “Endocrine disruptors interfere with growth, development, intelligence and reproduction. The damage can be irreversible and be passed on to future generations.”

There are some “greener” alternatives, however … Charlotte Williams, a professor of chemistry at Imperial College London, paints an exquisite picture in her piece Creating renewable plastics that don’t cost the Earth:

“Imagine a future where packaging is made entirely from waste material and biodegrades to harmless by-products. Or where your home’s cavity wall insulation foam is made from captured CO2 emissions. Or where construction materials, vehicle components and engineering plastics are sophisticated biological composites consisting of tough cellulose fibres embedded in naturally derived polymers.”

She explains that these inventions are poised to enter the mainstream. “Their development is driven by considerable consumer and economic pressure to replace conventional plastics made from petrochemicals with new materials, derived from natural sources such as plants or gases like CO2.”

Her full report is available on The Conversation, a website which refers to itself as an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community.

In a nutshell; sustainable polymers aren’t necessarily greener (if you take their manufacture, use and disposal into consideration), but they do put waste material to good use and capture CO2 emissions that would have just escaped into the atmosphere.

Some of these “bio-boosted” polymers are biodegradable and, if not, mostly recyclable. They shouldn’t be mixed with traditional plastics however … (the article also goes into some interesting new developments, but I shouldn’t digress).

Compared to other recycling materials, such as glass and metal, plastic polymers recycling is more challenging as there are many technical hurdles to overcome. “Metals are very easy to recycle from other materials and from one another,” explains Mike Biddle, founder of MBA Polymers, on TED Talks. (TED is a non-profit site devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short talks.)

“They have very different densities,” Biddle continues. “They have different electrical and magnetic properties and they even have different colours. It’s very easy for either humans or machines to separate these metals from one another and from other materials.”

It’s, however, a lot more difficult to distinguish between different plastic variants. “Traditional ways of separating materials simply just don’t work for plastics,” he adds. “This is problematic as different types of plastic tend to phase-separate (similar to oil and water) when they’re melted together, causing structural weakness.”

MBA has come up with a solution, however, developing breakthrough waste separation technology, recovering plastic from large waste streams (such as end-of-life cars, computers, electronic appliances and household waste) around the world.

“It starts with metal recyclers that shred the products into very small bits,” Biddle explains. “They recover the metals and leave behind a complex mixture of materials, but predominantly plastics. Here we remove the non-plastics, such as missed metals, carpeting, foam, rubber, wood, glass and paper.”

The mixture of different types and grades of plastic then go into another process. “Here the really hard work, a multi-step separation process, begins. We grind the plastic down to the size of a little finger’s nail. We use a very highly automated process to sort those plastics, not only by type, but by grade. And out the end of that part of the process come little flakes of plastic: one type, one grade,” Biddle points out.

The next step includes optical sorting according to the plastics’ colour. “That material then goes to extruders where we melt it, push it through small die holes, make spaghetti-like plastic strands and we chop those strands into pellets,” notes Biddle. “This is the same material that you would get from oil. We’re just producing it from post-consumer plastic.”

So, while petrochemicals are used as the building blocks for so many essential and life saving equipment, they, and many of the products derived from them, does hold many perils for our planet and its people …

Headway, however, is being made to curb the negatives and enhance the positives.

See how your plant works in the blink of an eye

In the main article we see that petrochemicals are vital building blocks for many essential and life saving equipment … the collection process, of raw products needed to produce this compound, does present some challenges, however. The Brady Corporation, an international manufacturer and marketer of people, products and places protection solutions, offers a way to overcome these.

“When implemented well, professionals can use pipe markers as a guide and will be able to see how your plant works in the blink of an eye,” explains Christophe Nelissen, sales manager of Brady Middle East.

Compliant colour coding, combined with piping and instrumentation diagrams, flow direction and clear “to” and “from” information make your plant visually presentable and compliant. They also dramatically increase the safety and process insight of the contractors, who are active in an oil and gas plant.

“A simple tap could contain water, for example, but might just as easily hold pressurised steam, oil or gas,” Nelissen points out. “Pipe markers immediately inform professionals what to expect, even when they are unfamiliar with a specific plant.”

Should a leak occur, well-implemented “to” and “from” pipe markers will quickly show your engineers potential sources of a leak, for a quick and adequate reaction. Another benefit is that a clearly identified oil and gas plant greatly increases the speed at which new employers can be trained.

“Brady combined insight from its long presence in the Middle East, with extensive material knowledge and worldwide identification know-how to create durable pipe markers made from quality material, which are ready to implement in any oil and gas site worldwide,” Nelissen concludes.

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