The Plastic Supply Chain and Local Water

Water footprints account for water use along entire supply (or production) chains, which can be messy just to map, let alone assess. Take FIJI Water, for instance. Notorious for being a luxury good with a troubling profile, FIJI Water’s plastic bottle life cycle exposes a predicament for consumers who think they are buying a product that is healthy but in fact, could be quite damaging to the environment. The PET resin is reportedly made in China, the leading resin-producing nation, where it is then shipped to Fiji, molded into the signature square bottles, filled with Fiji artesian water and exported around the world. China faces serious water scarcity and water pollution problems throughout the country, both of which are caused or exacerbated by manufacturing. Supply chain disruptions can have severe consequences, even for plastic resin production, as China’s severe response to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus shows.

When people in Los Angeles, Paris and Singapore sip on genuine Fijian water imported thousands of miles from the tropical island, they are also consuming the virtual water it took to produce resin from water-stressed China and bottles from Fiji.

Here in the United States, it is increasingly likely that the resin used to make plastic came from the Texas Gulf region, which often experiences its own water stress. West Texas is in the midst of a boom in which record amounts of oil and natural gas are extracted using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques, with industrial Texas Gulf hubs like Houston and Corpus Christi producing more PET resin than ever before.

In the Corpus Christi area, water resources are already at risk from scarcity and pollution, and the problems are being compounded by the development of the burgeoning petrochemical industry. Fracking has a notoriously large water footprint, and industrial expansion around Corpus Christi now includes two thirsty petrochemical facilities that process the building block components of plastic using fracked oil and gas.

Anticipated to be among the world’s largest plastic plants, these facilities operate in an area that regularly suffers from drought and deluge, both extremes expected to intensify with climate change. Just one of the facilities — the huge ExxonMobil ethylene cracker — is projected to use around 18 million gallons of water per day drawn from the Corpus Christi supply, in conjunction with water from the nearby towns of Portland and Gregory. Water scarcity concerns led the Port Industries of Corpus Christi to start planning the development of two desalination plants to meet regional freshwater needs. Provoked by the ExxonMobil cracker development next door, concerned citizens and environmental groups in Portland banded together to protect their local water and air

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