How a little plastic jug lured Chevron into a slanderous trap.
“All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.” – Bob Dylan
The lowly milk jug—that most simple of containers sitting in almost every fridge in America—is truly a wonder. The carbon and hydrogen atoms within it begin their journey at an oil and gas field somewhere. Along the way, ethane is refined, sent to a cracker to become ethylene, and fed into a specialized polymerization reactor. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) exits as pellets that are sold to a specialized container manufacturer. There, the pellets are heated until molten and blow-molded into shape.
Ready to fulfill its destiny, the jug is sent to a milk producer, where it is filled and capped for transport through the cold chain. With the structural integrity and barrier properties needed to protect its precious cargo along the complex journey to the grocery retailer, the jug’s ubiquitous design makes it easy for customers to place in their shopping carts and accessible for children to “help themselves” at home.
A standard one-gallon milk jug uses just 60 grams of HDPE (confirmed at The Coop™ using a simple baking scale). Blow-mold-grade HDPE can currently be acquired in bulk at the Port of Houston for $990 per metric ton, which means there are just six cents of material value in the world’s most recognizable container. Suffice it to say, we get our money’s worth.
Despite that exercised utility, we would understandably prefer not to simply throw away milk jugs and other such containers at the end of use. As manufactured articles that have been reasonably subjected to decades of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” anthems, tossing them in a landfill seems wasteful, akin to outright littering. Surely, recycling the material and breathing a second life into these magic atoms is the proper course, right? Here is where things get…complicated.
According to data from DevelopmentAid, the US generates an astonishing 1,788 pounds of municipal waste per person each year, most of which is either placed in a landfill or incinerated. Only a quarter of all municipal waste gets recycled. The problem gets significantly worse if you drill down into the plastics category. Here are the sobering details (emphasis added throughout):
“Only 5% of the mountains of plastic waste generated by US households last year was recycled, according to new research by Greenpeace. Americans discarded 51m tons of wrappers, bottles and bags in 2021 – about 309lb of plastic per person – of which almost 95% ended up in landfills, oceans or scattered in the atmosphere in tiny toxic particles.”
The resulting blight gives insult to the injury of otherwise ignoring the meaningful embodied energy remaining in these heaps of discarded plastics. Companies in related industries have invested countless sums to address the question “How do we capture the potential energy value remaining in plastics while minimizing the impact on the environment?” One such player, Chevron, has discovered that any naive pursuit of this question holds an unavoidable trap.
Recently, Chevron won approval from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to demonstrate a process that recycles plastic waste in a novel way. The company’s plans involved feeding plastic-derived material back into its Pascagoula, Mississippi refinery—a sprawling 2,700-acre maze of state-of-the-art chemical facilities capable of refining 369,000 barrels of oil per day—where it would be transformed into a “green” version of jet fuel. The Chevron proposal would theoretically give society a second bite of the milk jug’s energy while solving the known issues with mainstream recycling programs. Better to be tossed back into the refinery than into the ocean, so the thinking goes.
What’s not to like?
A lot, apparently. The EPA’s approval of Chevron’s plans has sparked an unprecedented and nasty attack on both the company and the government agency itself by the professional environmental movement. The tactics being used are ugly and preposterously unscientific, rising to a new and jarring level of vitriol. Chevron executives surely expected the company to be lauded for their development. What dragged their effort into the crosshairs of the environmental left instead? Is their program a promising solution or a dangerous threat? Let’s head to Mississippi and find out.