Time and time again I see arguments put forward for avoiding the use of petrochemical-derived ingredients in cosmetics. Leaving aside the nonsensical claim that they are all dangerous (fortunately, a view shared only amongst a small minority of ill-informed/naive people), there seem to be 2 main issues:
1) Oil is not a renewable resource
2) Oil exploration and processing are harmful to the environment
Whilst it could be argued that oil IS a renewable resource (in terms of the fact that oil could be produced wherever geological conditions are suitable), there is no doubt that current usage vastly outstrips the relatively slow natural processes that produce the material, so it is not sustainable – a different matter entirely!
There is also little doubt that oil exploration can be harmful to the local environment (to varying degrees), and to the wider environment when things go badly wrong – fortunately, a rare occurrence.
Whilst oil is clearly not a sustainable resource, there is still quite a lot left. It is estimated that there are 1.3 trillion barrels of oil remaining (http://www.imeche.org/knowledge/themes/energy/energy-supply/fossil-energy/when-will-oil-run-out) . 1 barrel weighs approximately 130kg (depending upon the density of the oil, which is variable), so this equates to approximately 169,000,000,000kg of oil (or 169 million tonnes, if you prefer). Although estimates vary, it is suggested that known reserves will be exhausted within 40 years, but I don’t see this as yet another reason not to use petrochemically-derived ingredients. What else would we do with the oil if we just stopped retrieving it? Whilst there may be some environmental considerations during extraction, there is no environmental penalty from there being no oil left in the ground.
As a contrast, let’s take a look at an ingredient that is popular in products aimed at those who prefer the more natural angle for their cosmetics – Dead Sea mud. This natural ingredient is taken from only one place – the Dead Sea (no surprise there, I suspect!). That fact alone should ring alarm bells – only one very small area is available for providing this popular ingredient for use in cosmetics globally.
The Dead Sea has a surface area of 810km2 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea). Whilst the surface area doesn’t give a direct indication of the total surface area of the sea bed, it’s a good enough approximation for the purpose of illustrating an important point. The area of the sea bed and the depth of the mud are required for any calculation of the total quantity of mud available for mining. I have no precise figures for either, so I will take an approximation from the surface area and an overestimate of the depth of the mud as being 0.005km (= 5 meters – especially as it makes the calculation much easier!) – giving a total volume of mud of 4.05km3 (810 x 0.005). In order to arrive at a figure comparable to the actual weight of remaining oil reserves, I then need to convert this volume to a weight, for which I require the density of the mud. I can find no data on this, so I will have to make an educated (and deliberately exaggerated) guess at 3g/cm3 (= 3kg/litre). This gives a total weight of 4.05 x 3 = 12.15; 12.15 x 100,000,000 (the number of litres in 1km3) to give a total weight of 1,215,000,000kg (or 1.215 million tonnes). Bear in mind that this figure is highly likely to be an absolute maximum, as I believe I have overestimated both the depth of the mud and the density – the actual figure could well be less than half of that I’ve just calculated.
Whilst I fully appreciate that the rate of use of Dead Sea mud is tiny compared with that of oil, this is still a finite resource. It is probably renewable but, as for oil, the rate of usage will greatly outpace the rate of renewal and is, therefore, not sustainable. Additionally, the removal of the mud has a much more direct impact on the immediate environment than does the removal of oil (in most cases), especially when that effect is combined with the effects of removing other minerals from the Dead Sea. In fact, the Dead Sea is already looking like a significant environmental disaster (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea) and the continual removal of mud from the sea will only make things worse. Well before we reach the point where there is no more mud left to extract, the environment of the Dead Sea will be beyond repair. Also, as with oil, Dead Sea mud is not without serious political issues (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahava).
So, given the fact that oil is not a sustainable resource and has environmental issues, and that Dead Sea mud has exactly the same two issues (arguably even more so, environmentally), why are petrochemicals not acceptable and even positively vilified by some, (although oil is natural and petrochemicals are, therefore, nature-derived) whereas Dead Sea mud is a highly lauded ingredient in many cosmetics?
Several possible reasons may be offered – confusion; ignorance; hypocrisy?
If anyone has more accurate data for any part of my calculation, I welcome this, but I think it is unlikely to change the basic premise that there is, essentially, no difference in the arguments against using either petrochemicals or Dead Sea mud. The natural lobby can’t have it both ways. Or am I missing something? If I am, please tell me!