The war on plastic
Our expert's opinion
For his series ‘War on Plastic’, BBC one presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall holds plastic producing companies like INEOS accountable for the waste of single-use plastic packaging. During his one hour-long episode, Whittingstall also accuses INEOS to ship shale gas from the US to Scotland to make even more plastic. Moreover, he points to billions of small plastic capsules washing up on local beaches in the UK, supposedly coming from INEOS.
Tom Crotty, INEOS communications Director rejected the criticism made by Hugh. “Taking simplistic views that says plastic equals bad is pretty pathetic really, what you need to say is plastic waste is bad and how do we stop that.” he said. Tom believes that plastic is an incredibly valuable raw material and highlights that 100% of INEOS’ polymers can be re-used, but that up until now only 14% of plastic was recycled. At this time, INEOS is investing millions in new recycling technology that will allow the company to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, have a zero pellet loss and turn plastic waste into chemical building blocks.
Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at UCL presents a new podcast on BBC ‘Plastic Fantastic’ where he talks about the conflicting relationship with plastic. He says that behavior change, government policy and science could contribute to a better (re-) use of plastic.
Do you think new recycling technologies will help fight growth of plastic waste?
- Julie Beyens, Associate Consultant
Society would be lost without plastic. But it continues to be demonised in newspapers, on TV and on social media.
In the latest attack - watched by millions on television in the UK - Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall questioned whether companies, like INEOS, should be making less plastic. Not more.
"The more plastic this industry produces, the more plastic will end up in our lives, whether we want it or not," he told viewers.
But the main focus of the three-part BBC series, War on Plastic, was on single-use, plastic packaging.
“The fundamental premise was that plastic packaging is evil, but there was
no recognition of the benefits to the reduction in food waste because it keeps food fresh for longer.”
INEOS Communications Director
More troubling though for INEOS, was that the importance of plastic to our everyday lives was overshadowed. Viewers were left with the feeling that all plastic is bad.
Uses of plastic
“Much of the rise in plastics’ demand around the world is not from packaging,” said Tom. Plastic is in demand from car manufacturers, the construction industry, the engineering and pharmaceutical industries and hospitals.
Lightweight plastic parts in cars and planes have reduced fuel consumption, leading to a reduction in harmful emissions. Insulation makes modern buildings far more energy efficient.
Heart stents, catheters, syringes, blood bags, prosthetics, pill casings, MRI machines, incubators, dialysis machines, sterile pharmaceutical packaging and operating theatres are all made of plastic.
And plastic pipes – which are easier and cheaper to install – are being used in some of the poorest parts of the world to bring fresh water to villagers for the first time.
“80% of our plastic goes into these sorts of applications and not into packaging,” said Tom. “That’s what’s driving our growth. It is much more than straws and stirrers.”
During the hour-long programme, Hugh also questioned the logic of INEOS’ decision to ship shale gas from the US to Scotland so it could make more plastic.
But Tom said the manufacturing base had simply shifted from China and the Middle East to the USA because America had become, thanks to vast reserves of cheap shale gas, more competitive.
“Growth doesn’t come from making more plastics, it comes from demand for the plastic by consumers.
I could build a factory to make a billion typewriters but nobody would buy them.”
INEOS, which manufactures billions of translucent plastic pellets every year for other industries, had provided the BBC film crew with open access to its Grangemouth site.
During filming, Tom said 100% of INEOS polymers could be recycled, but currently, only about 14% of plastic was recycled. “Much of it ends up in landfill but we think this is a waste,” he said. “We want to use recycled plastic waste as a raw material because plastic should be used over and over again. And then, at the end of its life, we can recover the useful energy it contains by burning it.”
INEOS is currently working on how to chemically recycle plastic. A new, leading-edge, non-mechanical process would turn plastic back into its basic molecular level so it could be fed as a raw material back into the plastic processes.
“This holy grail of plastic recycling is fast becoming a reality and will mean we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to make our products,” he said.
INEOS has signed joint development agreements with Pyrowave, Agylix and GreenMantra. Using their patented technology and INEOS’ manufacturing infrastructure, waste plastics could be turned back into chemical monomer building blocks. “These building blocks will replace a portion of virgin raw material in our polymerisation process,” said Tom.
And on the ground, INEOS is obsessive about zero pellet loss, at its own plants and through its hauliers and customers, as part of its commitment to Operation Cleansweep, the plastic industry’s global initiative to handle plastic pellets with care so that they don’t ultimately end up in the sea.