To say that we should not build pipelines that deliver natural gas or natural gas liquids because some of the product may be used to make single-use plastics is shortsighted and misses the mark.
Natural gas and natural gas liquids, such as propane, butane and ethane, have many uses for things we count on daily — including cooking, heating and refrigeration — and, yes, the production of some single-use plastics that are critical to our health and hygiene.
It is important to highlight just what are single-use plastics, and that despite their description, many are recyclable and serve additional purposes. Water bottles, for instance, are turned into items such as traffic cones, kitchenwares, countertops and carpeting. Others are disposable, such as daily contact lenses, garbage bags and food packaging — and many single-use plastics are used in health care because they help prevent the spread of dangerous diseases. These items include surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, IV tubes and catheters.
Will the ethane transported by our Mariner East Pipeline be exported to make single-use plastics?
The ethane in our pipeline that is exported overseas is mainly used for ethylene production, which is converted to polyethylene to make many types of plastics and synthetic fibers, such as nylon, polyester and spandex.
In addition to being exported overseas, ethane shipped by our pipeline is distributed to local and regional domestic markets, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Connecticut and Maryland.
Think of the plastics we reuse regularly. Today’s modern car is made of approximately 50% plastics by volume. Its light weight helps significantly improve gas mileage and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Many children’s toys are made of plastic and are passed down from one generation to another. Do you remember that plastic, red-and-yellow toy car that infants scoot around in? Plastic is softer than wood or metal, and more flexible. That makes it safer and lighter. Other popular plastic toys include dolls, toy soldiers, video game consoles and water guns.
What if we phase out all “single-use” plastics?
While many assume that single-use plastics are limited to straws and water bottles, in reality, there are good reasons certain products are designed for just one use — such as health and hygiene. Plastic materials are critical components of our antiseptic model of modern medicine. They have contributed to a reduction in medical costs and infectious diseases, and help with pain management.
Your daily contact lenses are made of hydrophilic plastics — a special type of water-absorbing plastic that stays soft and moist as long as it is absorbing lots of water. And eyeglass lenses are made with tough, shatter-resistant plastics, such as polycarbonate.
Plastics are used to make surgical and dental instruments, plastic syringes, blood bags, heart valves, endoscopic probes, pacemakers, anesthetic, and diagnostic and imaging equipment. MRI machines must be made of plastics so that the magnets can function correctly. And plastic prosthetics allow for enhanced features, functionality and cost efficiency.
It doesn’t end there. A 2016 study by Trucost found that using plastics in consumer goods and packaging has four times less of an environmental impact than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials. This is driven by the poorer efficiency of alternate materials when used in common consumer goods applications. Innovative plastic packaging also minimizes food waste.
Propane, butane and ethane have multiple uses in the U.S.
- Propane is used for home and industrial heating, crop drying, pest and weed control, cooking and transportation. It also can be used as a peaking fuel in electric power utilities and for the production of plastic.
- Butane is used as petrochemical feedstock (cracking yields butadiene, which is a precursor to synthetic rubber) and commonly blended into gasoline — especially during cooler months.
- Ethane is used in the production of ethylene for making antifreeze, detergents and plastics. It is also a ripening agent for foods and a refrigerant. Ethane is turned into ethylene to produce plastics for many uses, including:
- Polyethylene is the world’s most widely used plastic. It is recyclable and can be reused to make other products. It is also at the forefront of environmental research as we learn how to make it more biodegradable.
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride) comes in two basic forms: rigid and flexible. The rigid form is used in construction for pipes and door and window profiles. It is also used for bottles, non-food packaging and credit cards. The flexible form is used in plumbing, electrical cable insulation, signage and inflatable products.
- MEG is an ethylene derivative used in the production of polyester resins, films and fibers, and for making water-based adhesives, paper, antifreeze, coolant, aircraft de-icers and solvents. Ethylene glycol is used to make carbon fiber. End uses for MEG-derived products include clothing, textiles, packaging, kitchenwares, upholstery, carpeting, and drink and food containers.
- Surfactants represent a host of chemical compounds that are used as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents and dispersants.
- Other uses for ethylene are as a fruit-ripening agent, a welding gas and many more everyday applications.
What are you supposed to make of all this information?
Natural gas liquids are building blocks to many of the essential items we use every day and take for granted. They support clean energy, hygiene and safety — and contrary to popular belief, they are delivered locally and regionally for various direct uses by our Mariner East pipeline system. What does go overseas comes back to supplement the American economy and support our everyday way of life.
Recycling plastic (as well as aluminum and paper) is important, as is the responsible production, transport and disposal of plastic. But switching away from plastic does not necessarily reduce environmental costs, nor does it directly make us safer or healthier.