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Progress toward a new plastic plant highlights Europe’s plastic paradox

Nick Hannes for Quartz
48 hectares of trees are slated to be cut at the site where Ineos plans to build its new plastic factory.
  • Zoë Schlanger
By Zoë Schlanger

Environment reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

A provincial government in Belgium on Thursday (November 7) granted European petrochemical giant Ineos a permit to cut down a forest in preparation to build a large new plastic plant in Antwerp.

The permit allows Ineos to cut down 48 hectares (119 acres) of trees where its new plant is slated to go. The plant will be built to turn ethane, a byproduct of natural gas extraction, into ethylene, a building block for the most commonly-used form of plastic. Its source of material is unusual for Europe: It will run on liquid ethane imported from the shale fields in Pennsylvania, the center of the US fracking boom.

The price of US natural gas has plummeted, driven by overabundance brought on by the fracking boom. That has helped encourage the expansion of plastic production in the US, with more than 300 American plastic plants permitted or planned for the near future, including Shell’s major plastic-making campus currently under construction near Pittsburgh. Now, those same low prices are encouraging plastic production in Europe, thanks to Ineos’ specially-designed fleet of ships that can carry liquid gas from Pennsylvania across the Atlantic.

A local activist group formed to oppose the construction of the Ineos plant, “Antwerp Shale Free,” intends to file an appeal to oppose the decision, says Pieter Lievens, a local resident and founding member of the group. 

The next step for Ineos will be to secure a permit for the plant itself, which the company expects would take four to five years to build. Once completed, the new plant would produce around 750,000 tons of virgin plastic a year. Already, the port of Antwerp is home to several plastics manufacturing facilities. Local shores are littered with tiny pre-production plastic pellets called “nurdles,” which are the second biggest source of microplastic in the environment.

Ineos is also moving ahead with plans to expand its existing plastic plants in Norway and Scotland to 1 million tons each. Ethane crackers, much like oil refineries, must be continually fed to operate properly, and have a useful life of 30 to 40 years—which means the new infrastructure will lock Europe into a steady flow of cheap virgin plastic for decades, just as the EU has committed to banning several types of single-use plastic products by 2021.

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