The Graduate, 2014: Chemistry on the Rise

dreamstimesmall_26831029In the iconic 1960’s era movie “The Graduate,” a young Dustin Hoffman is given one-word career advice:  Plastics.  In the January 2014 cover story for Chemical & Engineering News, “World Chemical Outlook,” that advice seems ready for reuse.  The article is headlined “Across the globe and throughout industry sectors, the chemistry enterprise is moving into a higher gear.”  While good news for this year’s crop of Dustin Hoffman successors, the chemical ramp up deserves some thoughtful examination from a conservation standpoint.

First, the nature of the transition.  The recent recession was a great leveler for the industry across the globe.  The period 2007-2009 was terrible, and the recovery from 2009-2013 has been a heavy slog.  Given weak recent growth, one would not expect such a robust forecast.

However, some of the fundamentals that crashed the global economy in 2007 are at last, righting the ship.  In the US, industry insiders are buoyed by low-cost and abundant natural gas, spurring a plan production boom. Companies serving the housing, auto, and energy markets are especially well positioned.  Consumer purchases will increase demand in plastics and electronics, but not paper or textiles.  Clearly, synthetic is outperforming natural.

US energy firms are expanding production as fast as they can.  Most US refineries are operating at 93% capacity – effectively full-time, according to C&EN.  New plant construction is constrained only by the ability of engineering firms to supply engineering resources.  College graduates with engineering degrees, as well as pipe fitters and electricians, are in high demand.

Global currents will continue to flow around us.  US sources of cheap energy will find their way overseas, and strong consumer markets in Asia and South America will ensure a continued trade surplus for the U.S. Demand for specialty chemicals – the innovative pharmaceutical and agricultural products with increased potency – is spiking up. Demand for new anti-aging products alone will grow another 5% this year, atop 2013’s 5%.

What do these trends mean for the environment?

First, an abundance of cheap raw materials will mean that our throwaway society will become even more throwaway – if we allow it to happen.  Smart environmental policymakers in both the public and private sector will realize that this is a business opportunity, much as the “rag and bone” men of the 19th century capitalized on the citizenry routinely discarding used linens and animal carcasses in the streets.  An ample secondary market in used goods will help transition last generation’s styles into less prosperous hands.  At the very end of life, a good recycling system will capture the valuable raw materials (primarily metals) and turn true remaining materials into energy feedstocks. In fact, a recent report by the Center for American Progress recommended that the U.S. adopt the European waste management model and do away with landfills entirely, relying solely upon recycling and waste-to-energy. While we will always need landfills for some purposes in this country, even these functions are being used creatively to capture methane.

Second, a natural transition to more sustainable goods and services means that careful thought as to the design of a product be considerate all along the supply chain. As public demands for banning certain chemicals and uses grows, policymakers should fashion a transparent process for reviewing the nature of the ban and the effects of substitution.  Environmental protection is a regulatory field fraught with unintended consequences, as demonstrated by the 1990 Clean Air Act mandate for MTBE as a fuel additive that resulted in millions of dollars to clean up groundwater contamination.  As we look at chemical substitution, we need to consider the larger context of a product’s functional use.  For example, we are finding more and more often that large durable goods such as cars and airplanes are bristling with electronics – a part of the supply chain that seems to evolve at warp speed.  Designing these products so that they are easily upgradeable and reusable (and eventually, safely disposable) over their life cycle will be no small challenge.

Finally, our environmental workforce will need a fresh dose of talent.  Many of the first generation of environmental stewards, who launched the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund, and other bellwether environmental laws of the 1970’s and 1980’s, are retiring.  The maturing of our bedrock environmental programs requires a fresh look at the challenges of the future.  High demand in the chemical and energy sectors means that American colleges and universities will need to graduate talented scientists and engineers in droves.  Now is the time for effective mentoring and leadership by the executive ranks in order to ensure our young people can rise to the challenge.

Clearly Dustin Hoffman chose a career in celluloid, its own category of “plastics.” The game is on for the coming generation to integrate digital with plastics for a better world.