Your Energy is our Future

This article outlines the career opportunities offered by the plastics and petrochemicals industries, sectors where students can take part in creating the future. It has been written to support the chat with Wilfried Haensel (Executive Director of PlasticsEurope) and Pierre de Kettenis (Executive Director of APPE - Association of Petrochemical Producers in Europe) in April 2009.

Your energy is our future. The plastics and petrochemical industries need young bright talents to continue these industries’ tremendous growth by providing lots of energy and fresh new ideas. If students have the right skills and a strong will to make the world a better place, they will also be rewarded with a good salary, exciting projects and a chance to contribute to a sustainable environment.

The European plastics manufacturing and the European petrochemical industries are among the largest sectors in the European chemical industry. The combined turnover of the plastics manufacturing industry is approximately €160 billion per year, while the European petrochemicals industry represents a turnover of more than €74 billion. Together, this represents a turnover that is higher than the expenditure of several European countries. These industries have grown substantially over recent years, and this has provided a strong foundation for managing the current economic downturn.

They are not only large industries, but also distinctively European. The plastic and petrochemical industries are present across all European countries and many of the world’s leading companies come from and are based in Europe. It is also interesting to know that plastics were discovered in Europe, by Leo H. Baekeland in 1907.

The plastics chain in Europe - including converters and machinery manufacturers - employs 1.5 million people and is always looking to recruit more talent. The same goes with the petrochemicals industry. Some reason why it is interesting to work with petrochemicals and plastics:

  • Good pay – strong growth over many years enables companies to provide competitive salaries; 
  • Investment in training – good people never stay still, companies invest in improving their skills and awareness;
  • Innovativeness – these industries must be innovative in order to do well, this creates an atmosphere where "anything is possible” and new solutions are constantly sought;
  • The industries’ global nature – people working in these industries get to travel the world. Some of the biggest companies have offices in all continents and sell products to almost every country in the world;
  • Job variety – there are many different fields of work, giving endless possibilities for finding stimulating work;
  • Job security – they are industries that have done consistently well over many years, and are responsible towards their employees.

The work done by these industries also makes possible the most exciting and innovative products on the market today: iPods, sunglasses, plasma screens, computers etc. As technology becomes ever-more interwoven into our everyday lives, plastics will become increasingly important in delivering our quality of life.

These industries are always looking for intelligent, motivated graduates with an interest in chemicals and materials. It is especially important that the new generation of chemists, material scientists and chemical engineers have a high quality science education, and in many cases at least a masters or doctoral degree. But it is also essential that all other employees have a good basic science education, an education that only primary and secondary schools can provide. This is the case for those people in the industry working with diverse tasks such as marketing, sales and machinery as well as managers and designers.

Another important reason for working in these industries is that they contribute to a sustainable future:

  • Plastics products save energy and CO2 emissions. For example, plastics thermal insulation in buildings already saves 150 times the energy needed for its production across its lifetime;
  • Plastics contribute to waste minimisation by offering more and more resource-effective solutions, including lower energy consumption during production, a reduction in the plastics material needed to do a particular job and less waste of the packaged goods, whether it is food or water or a computer;
  • Plastics are reused in a number of areas. Plastics soft drink bottles are reused in deposit systems, many of us reuse the carrier bag for a variety of needs, and plastics trays used in supermarkets offer a clean, robust and cost-effective way of moving vegetables, bread or fish from producer to customer;
  • The recycling of plastics is increasing year by year. However, since plastics are basically solid oil they can also be used as fuel, which saves valuable energy resources.

The petrochemical and plastic industries are closely connected. It all begins with crude oil extracted from the ground and transported to refineries. Petrochemistry gets its raw material - known as feedstocks - from the refinery. These feedstocks are processed through an operation known as cracking - simply the process of breaking down heavy oil molecules into lighter, more valuable fractions. This is when the polymer producers steps in. They convert the petrochemical fractions into polymers. This chemical process is called polymerisation whereby a large number of molecules are linked together to form a polymer chain. In the end, these polymers will go into plastic products that we all know. Together, these industries are indeed the industries of the future.

However both industries are constantly looking for new opportunities. Plastics can be made from any feedstock containing carbon and hydrogen, and already today some plastics are made from renewable resources such as sugar and corn i.e. bioplastics. Nevertheless, it is important to note that there will always be a role for oil-based plastics. Plastics “capture” oil and enable the creation of many environmentally-beneficial products; as oil grows scarcer and more expensive it will be made into plastics rather than simply burned (as is mostly the case today).