4. Rubber: Rubber trees are indigenous to South America, but they started to spread through the world via cultivars in the 1700s. Due to blockades during the Second World War, a synthetic version, economically unimportant up to that point, jumped from an annual production of 231 tons to 840, 000 tons in just four years! We never looked back. But just remember, the next time you’re “burning rubber” in your sports car, you’re actually just burning oil — doubly so.
5. Paper: In certain print applications, synthetic paper, either a combination of wood pulp with a petroleum-derived resin or, more frequently, petroleum-derived material with no wood pulp at all, has surpassed traditional wood-derived paper. Paper is an ancient manufactured material, having been invented in China more than 2,000 years ago. True paper can be recycled, burned or allowed to decompose, its constituent parts ultimately incorporated into future trees and new paper. But regions with concerns about their availability of wood resources, including, ironically, China’s daughter nation, Japan, have come to rely more and more heavily on the petroleum paper instead.
6. Metal: Metal is not technically a renewable in the traditional sense, and mining comes with its own host of problems, but compared to plastic, metal lasts longer, is more easily recyclable and has fewer end-of-life issues. Given a choice between aluminum drink containers and plastic, I would pick aluminum every time. Given a choice between steel and plastic building or manufacturing components, I would have to go with steel. We’ve been smelting for thousands of years, and not until we started making everything out of plastic did we start having building materials end up in the food chain and ultimately our own bodies.
7. Wood: As a building or manufacturing material or as a fuel, wood has a lot on on oil-derived plastics and coal or natural gas. If you plant at least one tree for each one you cut, you’ll never run out.
In conclusion: It’s not news that oil is a convenient but poor long-term energy choice. But we sometimes don’t realize just how ubiquitous it’s become. The artificial cheapness of this very finite resource, even now, resulted in our using it as a replacement for any number of superior renewables. The system wasn’t broke, but we “fixed” it anyway.
Photo credits: Thinkstock
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