Next to the digital revolution, the petrochemicals technology in the early 1960s may have had the largest impact on human lives and global economies. Petrochemicals which came to be called “synthetics” and “plastics” include the plastic bags, the use of which Kenya and many other countries are either penalising or banning.
I am quite at home discussing petrochemicals because that was part of my Chemical Engineering university training in the UK in early 1970s. The organic chemists had stretched the science by combining various types and shapes of hydrocarbon molecules to form larger and more complex molecules called polymers.
The polymer science was scaled up and commercialised to make from crude oil and natural gas feed stocks, synthetic replacements for numerous “natural based” materials.
In came synthetic packaging, textiles, fabrics, footwear, fibers, cordage, rubber, paints, medicines, fertilisers, pesticides, solvents and many others. They even tried making synthetic proteins and burgers from petroleum feed stocks.
By 1980s, the petrochemical revolution was already taking a heavy toll on Kenya’s agricultural and industrial sectors. Cotton, sisal, wool, and pyrethrum-based farming and manufacturing were the earliest victims of synthetics and these are not expected to fully come back. Leather and wool production and industries were also dented by the synthetics.
However, global markets still exist for quality production of these agricultural items and that is why Kenya needs to focus on quality production of cotton, wool, sisal and pyrethrum to compete in the niche demand markets.
After decades of use, it is now dawning on the world that some of these petrochemical derivatives are having negative environmental and ecological impacts. Unlike the natural-based materials, plastics are not easily bio-degradable. The bacteria find it difficult to chew up plastics and as a result plastic waste becomes an environmental nuisance clogging up our urban drains and wetlands. The dumpsites are an unsightly mass and mess of plastics which cannot easily decompose.
Although most plastics can be recycled by melting and re-molding into new products, it is not easy to create sustainable recycle systems for plastic bags, and this concern may have advised the recent move by the East African Community countries to ban use of plastic bags.
Rwanda has effectively banned use of plastic bags and the good results are already showing as the streets and wetlands of Kigali city are spotlessly clean. Yes, Kenya can also do it. Vested interests will of course always push back, but once the ban is in place the most cost effective and convenient alternatives will automatically emerge.
We need to see the plastics ban as a new opportunity to groom our local agro-forestry and paper industry. We should not take the easy option and automatically jump into paper packaging imports. Instead we need to formulate programmes and projects for sustainable fast growing raw materials to feed local paper industries.
There has been talk of using fast maturing bamboo to feed paper factories. It is said that there are hundreds of bamboo species, some of which can thrive in our semi-arid regions. Further, we need to think wider beyond the Webuye Paper factory whose business and operating model is considered not commercially and environmentally sustainable for paper making.
Yes, petrochemicals including plastics will be with us for many decades to come. However nations should be judicious and selective on their use to ensure environmental and ecological compatibility. We should also not ignore economic considerations to protect local natural alternatives. The ban of plastic bags should be a good test on how to convert a problem into an economic opportunity as we clean up our environment.
Going forward, the mainstream oil industry is planning on prioritising and expanding the petrochemicals business line. This is because petrochemicals are less impacted by the ongoing push towards low carbon economies on account of global warming.
The carbon footprint in the petrochemical sector is much less compared with the petroleum energy (power, transportation) sectors whose demand growths are threatened by low carbon technologies, and renewable energy.