Increasingly we hear the slogan, #TurnOffThePlasticTap. However, little is known as to what this actually means and where this proverbial plastic tap is to be found. I therefore went on a journey to find this not so mythical tap that needs to be turned off. For those who are not convinced that the tap needs closing, here is an analogy. Imagine you came home to see your house flooded because you left the kitchen tap running. What would you do first, run for the mop or turn off the tap. I am sure everyone would opt for the second option in our example. The same counts for the plastic tap. Recycling can only do that much. We cannot recycle ourselves out of this mess anymore, especially when the plastic tap is fully open at the same time. It is like mopping up the water in your kitchen while the kitchen tap is still fully running.

My research took me to the Shell Petrochemical Complex in Pennsylvania, USA. The plant is an ethylene cracker plant which is still under construction. Once completed the plant will pump out 1.8 million tonnes of virgin plastic each year. Ethylene is a hydrocarbon used to produce plastic. It may not come much as a surprise that President Trump visited the plant in August 2019.

These folks are from Shell, and this is a plant like no other.  It’s just incredible.  And they are — they’re going to be opening.  Over the next six, seven months, it’ll start to open in phases, and then over the next year and a half, it’ll be totally open.  Tremendous employment right now.  They have almost 2,000 workers — anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000.

Remarks by President Trump During Tour of the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex | Monaca, PA, August 13, 2019

He praised Shell as a great company and that their investment is appreciated. He also appreciated that a lot of the most important parts for this plant were made in USA. However, people all over the world also know that Shell is one of the big polluters which are responsible to a great degree for the climate breakdown we see unfolding at present. It is therefore no wonder that he has no sympathy for Greta Thunberg and the Climate Change Movement. I am not sure if the climate strikers are aware what powerful and ruthless forces they are fighting against. This is especially true in todays ‘post truth world‘ (George Monbiot). It is therefore wise that they have diversified and that they have so many qualified leaders amongst them from all over the world.

The Shell plant in Pensilvania is an ethane cracker with the 97-mile Falcon pipeline feeding ethane to the plant being directly connected to Pennsylvania’s fracking wells, thus becoming a major hub for the natural gas and petrochemical industry. The new Shell plant will have its own rail system, equipped with 3,300 freight cars to ship virgin plastic pellets all over the world.

There are critical voices in the community regarding environmental concerns such as air and water pollution. It is not all about jobs and money. Selena Moreland speaks form her experience with her grandfather who worked at a steel mill but ended up with the black lung disease. After he retired, he was financially secure, but he died. Others have a clear understanding of the environmental impact of the plant. The feel it is killing the environment and it will help killing the planet by driving global warming.

“If the actions of environmental groups have a positive effect on the environment then I say, do what you have to do. Better safe than sorry. There might be economic benefits, but I’d rather have good health and a long life than riches.”

Selena Moreland
the shell cracker plant, the plastic tap needs closing
Construction of the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County is underway (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

The trend towards electrically driven vehicles, away from petrol and diesel, has produced an interesting effect. The petrochemical industry is turning to plastic as the key to their future investment and profits. Oil companies such as Saudi Aramco, who recently undertook the largest stock market offering in the world, invest billions of dollars into plastic. Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total and Exxon Mobil Corp. have all heavily invested in the plastic sector. According to the International Energy Agency demand for hydrocarbons already outstrips the need for liquid fuels. China alone has invested more than $100 billion in crude-to-chemicals projects. Other petrochemical companies are investing as much as half of their capacity to chemicals that China imports to make polyester and plastic bottles. This plastic tap needs closing.

Major players in the market are planning refineries with 70% to 80% of its output in chemicals, which would double the profitability from a barrel of oil. Exxon, for instance, plans to expand its Asian and North American chemical production by 40% in anticipation of rising demand. There are more than 300 new plastic manufacturing facilities, such as the Royal Dutch Shell plant in Pensilvania, planned for the US in the near future. The oil and gas industry aims to increase plastic production by at least 33% by 2025. This is a worrying trend which justifies the slogan ‘we cannot recycle ourselves out of this mess’, – at least as long as the plastic tap is fully open.

Another problem are the plastic pellets or nurdles, the building blocks of plastics. They are finding their way into our environment. Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets the size of a lentil. There are roughly 22,000 nurdles per pound of plastic. To put things in perspective, the Pensilvania Shell plant intends to produce roughly 80 trillion nurdles per year. These nurdles, due to their tiny size, are easily lost in transport, thus polluting the environment literally for ever. One recent study found that production facilities in the UK lose between 5 billion and 35 billion pellets a year, for example. In 2017, two ships collided, spilling 49 metric tons of pellets into the sea, thus coating 1,243 miles of South Africa’s coastline with nurdles. According to some estimates half of all microplastics might actually be these pre-production pellets. Researchers found that these nurdles are the second common pollutants in our environment, apart from micro plastics that are the break down from larger items.

plastic pellets, the plastic tap needs closing
Before plastic is made into anything else, it is made into pellets. And those pellets are leaking everywhere (Zoë Schlanger)

We found the plastic tap along with some horrendous details. It appears that plastic pollution is bound to rise with so much investment of the petrochemical complex and plans to expand production with 300 new cracker plants coming online over the next decade. How does this compare with the recycling rathe of just nine percent? It seems an impossible and hopeless task. Climate Breakdown and plastic are intimately related. They are the two sides of the same coin and what unites them is the oil. Therefore the slogan and hashtag is quite appropriate, #TurnOffThePlasticTap, and #KeepTheOilInTheGround.

Often the link between plastic and the climate crisis is not fully understood. Besides both coming from the same source, namely oil, plastic itself has a significant carbon footprint. In a new report from the Center of International Environmental Law (CIEL) researchers found that by 2050 plastic will contribute 10 to 13% to the total “carbon budget” – which is the amount of CO2 we can emit globally and still remain below a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise. Furthermore, Charli Shield points out in his article The plastic crisis isn’t just ugly – it’s fuelling global warming, that plastic in our oceans could impact the oceanic carbon sink.

the plastic tap, plastic will 10-13% to the total carbon budget
Plastic will contribute 10-13% to the total carbon budget by 2050
Causes and Effects of Climate Change – National Geographic

The Podcast, The Plastic Tap

The following is an excerpt from a podcast with Dr. Rob Watson from Decentred Media, John Coster from Leicester’s DocMedia Centre, Dominika Pluta and Gerhard Haas, with the issues of plastic pollution, climate breakdown and a functioning local economy being discussed. Furthermore, normalisation, de-normalisation and re-normalisation was also a topic covered.

Podcast at the DocMedia Centre, Leicester

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Sources

Monaca, PA. White House Briefing, August 13, 2019. Remarks by President Trump During Tour of the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex.

Teake Zuidema, February 25, 2019. Have environmentalists lost their battle to thwart the petrochemical industry in Southwest PA?

Jack Kaskeyjune, June, 2019. Los Angeles Times. Oil giants bet their futures on plastic — just in time for a plastic-trash crackdown.

Zoë Schlanger, August 19, 2019. Virgin plastic pellets are the biggest pollution disaster you’ve never heard of.

Charli Shield, May 15, 2019. The plastic crisis isn’t just ugly – it’s fuelling global warming.

CIEL (Center for International Environmental Law), May 2019. Plastic & Climate – The Hidden Cost of a Plastic Planet.

Further Reading

AZoM, September 24, 2019. New, Economical Method to Separate Useful Ethylene from Ethane Gas.

JAMES CHEN, updated Mar 6, 2018. Oil Refinery.

Unknownblue, October 1, 2018. The Ocean Cleanup Aims To Take Out Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Ocean Cleanup, January 26, 2017. The Ocean Cleanup – How We Roll.

CNET, September 10, 2018. The Ocean Cleanup launches to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Ocean Cleanup, June 30, 2016. Boyan Slat unveils The Ocean Cleanup Prototype.

The Oceancleanup, 2019. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Oceancleanup, 2019. The Interceptor.

The Oceancleanup, 2019. The Passive Cleanup System, How it Works.

ThoughtCo, 2019. A Brief History of the Invention of Plastics.

Beth Gardiner, 2019. The Plastics Pipeline: A Surge of New Production Is on the Way.

Atle Staalesen, 2019. On remote and frail tundra lands of Yamal could come a huge petrochemical plant.

Julian Cribb, January 20, 2020. The War on Global Carbon.

Mary Bellis, January 28, 2020. A Brief History of the Invention of Plastics.

Rebecca Altman, 2018. American Beauties.

Krishina Ramani, November 24, 2017. Did you know that in Thailand the average person uses 8 plastic bags each day?