Monday, October 25, 2010

New wood-based substitute for plastic shows that the greatest resource is still human ingenuity.

Resource exhaustion has been a common theme in public dialogue, from the days of Thomas Malthus up to today. The National Energy Policy Institute recently published a documentary entitled "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the End of the American Dream." I didn't watch it, but a staff writer for the California Chronicle describes its general "claim that the suburbs wouldn't exist without cheap oil." Enjoy your SUVs while you can, I guess.

In this film, and similar pieces on 'a coming age of energy scarcity', the unspoken assumption is that oil resources are fixed so they must eventually run out. A seemingly intuitive claim, but perhaps a false one. Some economists (most famously the late Julian Simon) have argued that natural resources are functionally infinite. As a resource becomes more scarce the price rises, causing people to search for substitutes. To quote Simon himself:
Ivory used for billiard balls threatened to run out late in the 19th century. As a result of a prize offered for a replacement material, celluloid was developed, and that discovery led directly to the astonishing variety of plastics that now gives us a cornucopia of products (including billiard balls) at prices so low as to boggle the 19th century mind.

Thanks to human ingenuity and technological advance, previously useless materials can become resources for the future. Now, due to concerns about the environmental effects of plastic and the future price of oil, the next stage in this process has arrived with Arboform.

Discovered in the last two years by German researchers, this plastic substitute uses lignin (a component of wood usually discarded during paper production) combined with flax and other fibers to form a mold-able substance with similar properties to plastic. Some Arboform products - golf tees, furniture, baby toys, and women's designer shoes - have already been introduced. According to one of the scientists, "By just using lignin, we could technically replace a quarter of the world's plastic production." 

Obviously, oil is still relatively cheap, and plastics are still the most economical choice for most products -- or I'd be typing this on an Arboform keyboard. However, if in the future oil were more scarce, the paper industry is already producing 130 million pounds of lignin per year; a ready substitute for petroleum-based plastics. Similar substitutes are being developed in the fields of transportation and power production, and will become more profitable and widely used if oil is ever depleted. Given the availability of substitutes informed by instant feedback from prices, there's no reason to expect the "suburban lifestyle" is in much danger from oil scarcity.

As long as market prices operate, running out of resources is one danger we can stop fearing. Arboform is just one example of how innovators can turn today's problem into tomorrow's opportunity.

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