Four and a half billion years ago, or thereabouts, there was nothing but a hot, rocky, lifeless mass bathed in water vapor, ammonia, hydrogen and methane. After seven-hundred million years, the Earth had cooled sufficiently for the water vapor to condense and become an ocean. And still there was no plastic. A little over half-a-billion years ago, layers of dead phytoplankton, algae and primitive marine organisms that had begun living in the ocean drifted to its floor and were trapped in mud and sand. Over geologic ages, through heat and pressure, these layers of decayed organic material became oil and liquid gas trapped beneath the earth’s surface of rock and clay.
And still, there was no plastic. But its feedstock was now comingled within the seams, pools, shale beds, and seeps of fossil biomass – the hydrocarbons that had trapped the solar energy of an ancient world. The simplest of all the hydrocarbons was methane, encapsulated as a liquid gas from vapors released by the rotting carcasses of tiny sea creatures and, over time, larger, more complex organisms. Out of the simple methane molecule, in those dark, cloacal spaces, with the addition of a single carbon atom, variously configured, were created ethane, propane, and butane.
Today, these feedstocks, sourced from Hydrocarbon Gas Liquids (HGLs), derived from natural gas, are turned into plastic pellets, or nurdles, which are the raw material of finished plastics. The United States is currently undergoing a so-called ‘Resin Boom’, with manufacturers daily producing trillions of the lentil sized pellets, which are mostly shipped to Asia. Pellet ‘loss’, in production and shipping, is now a major source of global plastic pollution. Nurdles, likely to be found in their hundreds on the beach nearest you, are but the latest reification of our plundering of the earth’s subterranean store of hydrocarbons.
Peat, a coal precursor, formed by decayed organic material lying close to the Earth’s surface and partially digested in acidic and anaerobic peatland ecosystems, has been harvested as a fossil fuel since the human discovery of fire. The unlikelihood of a flammable square of turf cut from a bog, was, much later, matched by the discovery of sedimentary rocks that would burn. The coal then becomes the first hydrocarbon to be mined, and its use as a fuel dates back at least three millennia to China. In Europe, it was used by the Romans to heat, among other things, the water in their elaborate bathing facilities. Today, a large part of its historical notoriety is linked to it fueling, in a very literal sense, Europe’s Industrial Revolution.