European students chat on life without (petro)chemicals

On 20 January 2009 twelve schools from eight countries participated in the Xperimania chat “(Petro)chemicals – who needs them?”. The students learned from the chat expert, science journalist and ICIS Markets Editor Andy Brice, how difficult a life without (petro)chemicals could be and what alternatives we have.

Students from Sweden, Hungary, Germany, Poland, the UK, France, Slovenia and Romania had prepared for the chat by reading Andy Brice’s article ”Living without polypropylene for a week – Cold turkey” where he describes his challenging week without one of the most common petrochemicals, polypropylene.

German students from the Tannenbusch-Gymnasium in Bonn asked the chat expert about alternative substances for cleaning products and polypropylene (PP). Andy Brice explained that there are plenty of alternatives for most materials and products:

”For example, instead of sodium lauryl sulphate, which is used in anything from shampoo to toothpaste, you can use natural alternatives. A light switch made of PP could be replaced by a switch made of polymethyl methacrylate, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene.”

Also, the students from the Romanian School no.29 “Mihai Viteazul” were interested in alternatives to plastics. Andy Brice explained that instead of plastics any source of hydrocarbon or any natural product can be used. But the use of alternatives depends on cost, scale of production and the properties required by the user.

“Controversial as food wrap, such as polyethylene, is, it helps to preserve food and keep it clean, and is convenient,” the chat expert pointed out.

To Swedish Buråsskolan’s question on biopolymers Andy Brice answered that biopolymers have a great future, but as the technology is fairly new it may take some time before they really start to make an impact. Moreover, biopolymers are not yet a direct replacement for conventional polymers. 

Students from the Polish Zespol Szkol Integracyjnych nr 1 wanted to know how they could avoid polypropylene. Andy Brice admitted that it’s almost impossible, as PP is suited to so many applications and used in products ranging from cars and computers to aircraft and sport equipment.

But since his experiment, Andy Brice has started checking the bottom of bottles, packages and cartons for the PP symbol – that could be a good start for everyone to be more aware of petrochemicals in our daily products!

By the end of the session, our chat expert had realised that some students seemed genuinely surprised that chemicals played such a major role in their everyday life.

The discussion continues on ICIS online forum, where Andy Brice and his colleagues answer any further questions on the subject:

Listen to the Xperimania interview with Ann Whent, Cefic and Andy Brice

Download the chat transcript here (pdf, in English)

Background article

Chat experts: Pierre de Kettenis, Appe, Franco Bisegna, Cefic, Andy Brice, and Christian Gilliard, Appe.
Chat experts and moderators: Andy Brice, Agueda Gras-Velazquez, EUN, Jacqueline Strypstein, Ann Whent, Christian Gilliard, and Pierre de Kettenis, Cefic/ Appe.
School no.29 "Mihai Viteazul", Romania
Teachers: Aurora Fagaras/ Carmen Badea
Woodkirk High School, UK
Teacher: Dan Hannard
Woodkirk High School, UK
Teacher: Dan Hannard
I Liceum Ogolnokształcace im. M.Kopernika, Poland
Teachers: Bozena Kubiak/ Marek Goszczynski
SEK Budapest International School, Hungary
Teacher: Beata Jarosievitz
SEK Budapest International School, Hungary
Teacher: Beata Jarosievitz
Gimnazija Poljane, Slovenia
Teacher: Breda Policar
Zespol Szkol Integracyjnych nr 1, Poland
Teachers: Malgorzata Zajaczkowska / Piotr Klosowski 
The "Zespol Szkol Integracyjnych nr 1" school in Bialystok, Poland, built a wall of petrochemicals.
After the chat, they destroyed the wall and threw the petrochemicals away.
Tannenbusch-Gymnasium, Germany
Teacher: Wolfgang Kehren