Grocery Shopping with the “Green New Deal”
By Dennis Dowling
“Compared to the alternatives, [plastic] reduces greenhouse gases (which cause global warming) and saves energy; that is rather ironic.” – Kevin Swift, Director of Economics and Statistics for the American Chemistry Council, in his article “Oil Is in Everything, From Shampoo to Vitamins,” pointing out that, because plastics (which are petroleum products) are lighter than metals, they have helped to create cars that save 26% in fuel, according to a 2005 European study on conversion to plastic materials in Europe
“Most pharmaceutical drugs are made via chemical reactions that involve the use of organic molecules. Petroleum is a plentiful source of organic molecules that feed into the drug synthesis process. Some sources cite as much as 99% of pharmaceutical feedstocks and reagents as coming from petrochemical sources. Even drugs that come from natural sources like plants are still often purified using petrochemicals, resulting in a more efficient and less costly manufacturing process. Others still, like antibiotics derived from natural fungi and microbes – namely, penicillin – often use phenol and cumene as preparatory agents. The fact is, without petrochemicals it would in many cases be extremely difficult to make and mass produce pharmaceutical drugs, particularly at the scale needed to meet global demand.” – Agnes Zalewski, in her article “Petroleum in Real Life: Pills”
Wondering About the “Green New Deal”
I am at the grocery store today, and I can’t help but wonder what it might look like ten years from now, if we implement the “Green New Deal.” I’ve always marveled at how many unintended consequences occur whenever even small changes are made to existing rules and regulations. Since my background is in Chemical Engineering, I tend to see these things through the lens forged by my personal experiences. I guess we all do.
Imagining the Kroger of 2031
I come to the store almost every day now, for reasons which will soon become apparent. I think I will avoid using a shopping cart, because – without rubber tires (which are now all metal) and without lubrication (which is expensive and in short supply) – carts are too hard to push and too squeaky to listen to. I think I will just carry a small straw picnic basket, since we no longer have plastic ones. Without crude oil production, there is no petroleum available for making rubber or plastic. We still have some natural rubber from the rubber trees of Southeast Asia, but the quality and quantity are limited. I sure hope the whale population holds out as our only remaining source of natural oil.
Consequences: From Abundance to Scarcity
There certainly is a great deal of empty space on the shelves. All the cans are missing. Without the petroleum-based linings we used to have to seal off the food from the metal, we now have to sell everything that is not fresh in glass jars. Of course, the glass jars used to have metal lids with protective plastic coatings and rubberized seals (also from crude oil). I’m not sure that paper coverings tied with string (which is made of cotton, since we no longer have polyester) makes a safe, secure, oxygen-free seal for a glass jar; it is not even wax paper that is being used, because there is not enough beeswax to go around, due to overdemand on account of the shortage of petroleum-based paraffin wax.
I have been hoping that what I need from the frozen-food section might be available, but when I get there, I find everything boxed in cardboard or wrapped in paper. Gone are the specially-designed plastic bags that used to keep the frozen vegetables, meats, and breads free of freezer burn. Also, they have removed many of the freezers, for lack of the petroleum-based refrigerant they require to function. I am not sure what they will do when they lose the use of the very last one. In fact, it is a little warm in the store nowadays, since the main air conditioner is now precariously low on refrigerant as well. Although we have gotten rid of the refrigerants that damaged the ozone, the replacements for those still require hydrocarbons in their manufacture. So, perhaps I would be wise to get only fresh vegetables and meat. I will pick up some flour and bake my own bread, since the bread in the store is rock-hard from being packaged in paper bags that are unable to keep it fresh.
The Produce Manager Explains
When I arrive on the vegetable aisle, I am surprised to find that the amount and variety of selections have been greatly reduced. Also, nothing looks as fresh as it used to. The produce manager explains that, without petroleum-based insecticides and fertilizers, farmers just can’t produce the crop yield we used to get. Also, I am told not to worry about any spots I might notice on the tomatoes, as they are just insect bites and a little mold we can no longer prevent. (Manure might help with fertilization, if only we still had cows.) The manager goes on to explain that we would be on the way to overcoming the scarcity of insecticides, even without petroleum-based products, except that we have been forced to give up produce that has been genetically-engineered to be insect-resistant. “Just wash them well and cut out the bad spots,” I am advised. At these high prices, I think I am going to eat the bad spots. Surely, that can’t kill me, can it? I put three tomatoes in my basket. I tip the basket to keep them from rolling around as I walk to the meat counter, because there are no thin plastic bags with wire ties to secure them.
Living with New Realities
I can only hope matters might improve in the meat section. But no, there is mainly chicken there, as always. I have learned to like turkey more, having grown weary of chicken. I sure wish those cows hadn’t passed so much gas that they got themselves outlawed. I really do miss having rib-eye steak. And pork is now scarce, since most of the hog farms have gone out of business – mainly due to a shortage of the corn needed for feeding them. It turns out that most people would prefer to eat the corn themselves. Of course, some rows are missing from almost every ear, due to the resurgence of the corn borer. I guess the produce manager was right about those pesticides. No matter, I buy two pork chops anyway, and the butcher wraps them in paper and ties them with cotton string, since we no longer have tape, due to the lack of sticky stuff needed for its manufacture. (3M is in the process of reinventing itself, since we no longer have petroleum-based products.)
I need to pick up a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper. I see they are all in glass bottles now. Apparently, there is enough cork to replace the plastic liners that used to be under the old caps. The deposit for buying bottles is, however, a little high. I used to recycle a hundred cans in a big plastic garbage bag (which no longer exists) that weighed only a few pounds. Indeed, recycling has become much more difficult.
Maybe I will take home some potato chips. Naturally, they are packaged in paper bags. I look at the expiration date. It says tomorrow. Perhaps I will just eat them on the way home. I put back the “Family Size” in favor of the smaller bag.
Noticing the Flooring
I think I will swing by the pharmacy to pick up some Tums. As I walk across the store to the pharmacy, I notice the floor tile is getting awfully worn. I guess they can’t replace it, since Armstrong – no longer able to make flooring tile – had to go out of business. Without the assorted rubbers and other polymers needed to make tile and carpeting, businesses specializing in flooring products had to close, for want of the necessary material. Carpet fibers like rayon, Dacron, polypropylene, polyester, and nylon all come from ethylene, benzene, paraxylene, and a host of other petrochemicals.
Upon entering the pharmacy area of the store, I find the Tums easily, but there are not many other things on the shelves these days, not even a bottle of alcohol. The vast majority of pharmaceuticals have always been made from petrochemicals. By some estimates, 90% or more of all pharmaceuticals are derived from petroleum. Even the delivery systems, such as IV fluid bags, plastic tubes, injection syringes, prescription bottles, et cetera, all come from petroleum. I notice there is only one person behind the counter, since there are few prescriptions for drugs that no longer exist. I have heard they are beginning to make an aspirin-type painkiller by stripping the bark from willow trees. I hope there are enough willow trees to go around. The tail-end of a radio news broadcast says the mortality rate is increasing. I worry about this, but my wife seems more worried about the empty cosmetic counters. She was lamenting yesterday that, “Even an old barn can benefit from a new coat of paint.” How much of this is likely due to the ban on petroleum? I open my Tums package and pop three of them!
No Petrochemicals, No Economy
The radio reports that unemployment is going up. I no longer have access to newspapers, since there is no more ink for printing them. Maybe unemployed journalists can help out on the farms until Deere can retool to make electric tractors, combines, and cotton-pickers. I hope Deere doesn’t take as long as Tesla. Since most moving parts need lubrication, I still haven’t figured out how the new machinery is supposed to work without grease and oil. And without belts, hoses, tires, paints, dashboards, seat cushions, steering wheels, plastic battery cases, wiring insulation, and all the other small plastic parts, someone is going to have to be highly creative in the building of new mobile equipment.
I know some of the job loss must be due to the cessation of home construction. There is no electrical wiring, due to loss of insulation production. If homes were built, they could not be painted, and only cedar shingles would be available and in short supply, as cedar trees are now endangered. Without tile or carpeting, there are only unvarnished wood floors or bare concrete. I suppose that, even if homes were built, the furnishings would have to be of untreated wood and metal. The appliances we had were mostly made of plastic and the furniture cushions and coverings all came from petrochemicals. Bedrooms would all feature cotton mattresses with box-springs. Every part of the house that is not metal or glass must be grown out of the soil. But enough of all this musing, I need to finish my shopping.
This store used to have much in the way of clothing. However, without synthetic fibers (like polyester, nylon, Dacron, Lycra, etc.), everything has to be made of cotton. If we could regain control of the Cotton Boll Weevil without pesticides, we might be able to increase cotton production; but, without fertilizers and weedkillers, we will just have to make our clothes last longer. Metal buttons look fine, but there are not as many options as when buttons were made of plastic.
No Relief in Sight
As I make my way to the check-out aisle, I notice the line is quite long. There seems to be some quibbling between a customer and the clerk about the bill. They have to refer to the screen to sort it out, since the clerk can’t print out an itemized bill, for there is still no replacement for the ink we once used (for lack of hydrocarbon and carbon black). Gone are the conveyor belts I used to unload my groceries on. People are getting irritated, because the lines have lengthened from the loss of check-out stands, due to the irreplaceability of worn-out computers. Dell and HP are working feverishly to figure out how, without plastic, they might insulate the wiring and house the circuit boards.
Less Petroleum Means More Paper
My groceries have to be loaded into paper bags. I notice there is a huge amount of paper usage in evidence inside my shopping basket. Perhaps that is why there is such a controversy over deforestation. But aren’t trees a major source of oxygen production, after phytoplankton (from the surface of the ocean)? Trees produce oxygen from carbon dioxide. Since we have given up producing crude oil to produce less carbon dioxide, it would seem that cutting down trees to make more paper might be counterproductive. But I’m sure the folks that are forcing us to stop producing petroleum have it all figured out. Not to worry, I have brought along my trusty cotton bags to do my part to save the environment.
Just Like Cuba
As I leave the store to walk home, I notice how much we have come to look just like Havana, Cuba – there being no new cars, either electric- or gasoline-driven, due to the dearth of rubbers, plastics, synthetic fibers for carpet and headliners, paints, lubricants and other petroleum-based products needed to make them. I suddenly remember the experiences people were having in California, when they gave up plastic grocery bags. Many came down with intestinal problems, due to the repeated use of contaminated cloth bags. (I better wash mine when I get home.) Oh, no! I almost forgot: Detergent is not available anymore! So, I need to go back in the store to pick up a bar of lye soap and a washboard. My wife Sue sure is going to love this. . . .
Dennis Dowling is a chemical engineer by training, with BS and MS degrees from Texas A&M. An employee of Exxon Chemical Company for 32 years, he performed a variety of roles within the Baytown, Texas, Chemical Plant – from Design Engineer to Operations and Maintenance Manager – and within the Baytown Olefins plant working as Engineering and Maintenance Manager. Along the way, Dennis worked two stints in the Exxon Chemical Headquarters coordinating the North American Olefins Operations as well as serving as Senior Business Planner in the Olefins Division. For several years, Dennis worked on the redesign and implementation of Exxon Chemical’s key business processes around the globe.