As stated in the overview, Polyethylene is the world’s most widely used and most widely produced polymer. There are three main types of polyethylene; Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), and LLDPE(a combination of the previous two). It is found in countless everyday items, and it also is one hundred percent recyclable. Polyethylene is valued for its strength and lightness, and it is used in plastics bags, bottles, caps, lids, pipes, containers, and more. It is such a common material that we humans come into contact with it every day, and it is easy to forget about and take for granted because its presence it so ubiquitous.
Polyethylene is made from natural gas. I researched the DOW Chemical Company to look into where they got their gas from, and what most likely happens is that they have natural gas piped into their plants. This is likely because natural gas is very abundant and it is very easy to transport via pipeline. The natural gas is treated and a gas called ethane is taken from the resulting compound. The ethane is then heated to form ethylene, which compounds when treated with chemicals into polyethylene. This process of heating into a liquid is called “cracking.” The polyethylene liquid is strained and cooled into strings of plastic. These strings are cut up into tiny bits and pieces called granules. These granules are what chemical companies like DOW send to other corporations who melt the granules to make everyday objects. The natural gas is almost impossible to trace back to its original source because roughly one hundred countries worldwide have large natural gas reserves. It is assumed that polyethylene produced in the United States comes from a natural gas source nearby within the United States.
There is potential for conflict with polyethylene, but compared to many other widely consumed materials, that potential is quite low. To start things off, polyethylene is a very safe plastic with no legitimate environmental or health concerns. While this fact does not make for a particularly interesting report about this material, it should be viewed as great news because the most used plastic in the world does not cause environmental problems. Of course, littering plastic will always be bad for the environment but that is the fault of humans, not the material itself.
Other potential for conflict with this material is revolves around the extraction of natural gas from the earth. Obviously, hydraulic fracturing for gas can put methane into our groundwater, which is very bad for the earth itself and for the health of humans. Additionally, greenhouse gases are released from the machinery that extracts this gas from the ground. There is potential for dangerous organic gases to leak out and pollute the air as well. Extracting natural gas requires professional work, almost always done by major energy corporations. Fortunately, there is almost no potential for the extraction of natural gas to be done by rebel groups, women, children, or any other group of people who are not supposed to be doing so.
The good news regarding Polyethylene is that the material itself has no negative effects on our environment unless of course it is littered. It is completely safe to handle and touch and even lick. The real source of potential conflict is in the extraction of the natural gas that is the key ingredient of polyethylene. The environmentalists who protest hydraulic fracturing must be listened to: we cannot continue knowingly polluting the earth in order to extract fossil fuels. With that said, natural gas is an absolutely essential source of energy and it is critical in the manufacture of plastics.
I have no suggestions or recommendations for DOW Chemical or any polyethylene manufacturers, because the plastic itself is completely recyclable and has no negative environmental effects. The recommendations I do have would be for the corporations that extract natural gas from the earth. They must find an alternative method of extracting natural gas other than hydraulic fracturing. This particular way has undeniably detrimental environmental effects, and ones that we should not be happy to live with.
Upon finishing up this project, it is clear to me just how important Polyethylene is to the world in which we live. While there are other plastics out there, none are so durable, light, strong, and environmentally friendly. If we can figure out how to fix the process of natural gas extraction, Polyethylene will be completely conflict free.