Europe’s plastics industry is about to boom. U.S. fracking is driving it.

Even as the European Union rolls out aggressive plans for reducing plastic waste, countries are importing cheap ethane gas to fuel their plastics industries.

Plans for a huge and controversial new chemical plant in Antwerp, Belgium, are drawing attention to several European countries’ growing imports of chemicals from the United States: by-products of fracked natural gas and oil that would fuel plastic production, even as the European Union rolls out aggressive plans for reducing plastic waste and battling climate change.

The U.S.-to-Europe trade in petrochemical by-products, coming as global demand for plastic climbs, could potentially undermine the European goals on both waste and carbon emissions.

The expansion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the United States has created a plentiful supply of ethane, an ingredient for making plastic which flows as a by-product of fracking for oil and natural gas. Its availability, and low cost, have prompted a massive buildout of plastic production in Texas, Louisiana, and western Pennsylvania. Nearly 350 fracking-enabled petrochemical projects, with a total price tag of more than $200 billion, have been planned or completed since 2010, according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.  

But much more ethane gas is bubbling up than those plants can use, so fracking firms are selling increasing amounts overseas at bargain prices. In 2016, a fleet of vast, custom-built ships started hauling it across the Atlantic, giving plastic makers in Britain, Norway, and Sweden access to the supply of this key component for their processing facilities.

These facilities, known as ethane crackers, apply intense pressure and heat —around 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit—to break the bonds of the ethane molecules. That “cracks” the ethane into a gas called ethylene. Then, through pressure and with help from a catalyst, the ethylene is turned into polyethylene resin, a common plastic.

Because the process uses enormous amounts of energy, its carbon dioxide emissions are substantial. That means any expansion of plastic production carries dangers for the climate, along with its more obvious contribution to the plastic waste blighting landscapes, waterways, and oceans worldwide.

Globally, cracking of ethane and an alternative ingredient called naphtha created carbon emissions equivalent to 52 coal-fired power plants in 2015, one report estimated—and that footprint could reach the equivalent of 69 coal plants by 2030 if the industry continues to expand.

“It makes no sense whatsoever to invest in new fossil fuel-based facilities to produce more plastics, at a time when we have a global warming crisis and a plastics crisis,” said Andy Gheorghiu, a Germany-based campaigner who has organized against the Belgian plant. “In fact, both are parts of one crisis.”

A standoff in Antwerp

INEOS, the global petrochemical company that started shipping fracked ethane across the ocean, plans to build a huge new cracking plant in Antwerp, Belgium. Industry analysts say that plant would double Europe’s consumption of the imported ingredient.

The project would be the continent’s first new ethane cracker since the 1990s. It has sparked a standoff with environmental groups, for whom it crystallizes worries over plastic’s ubiquitous role in modern life and the global economy.

Belgian officials have welcomed the planned $3.5 billion complex, which would secure Antwerp’s status as the world’s second-biggest petrochemical hub (Houston, Texas, is first). Environmental groups are less sanguine about the plan. Climate activists occupied the proposed site in October 2020. In November, a Belgian court granted an injunction to halt clearance of trees there while objections to the project are considered, a process that could take up to a year.  

Antwerp is already a major plastics center, and the River Scheldt’s banks are littered with lentil-size pellets of raw plastic, known as nurdles. By one estimate, 2.5 tons of them—billions of individual pellets—were spilled in the area in 2018. Nurdles are devastating for sea life. “They look like fish eggs,” and birds or fish that ingest them can starve because they fail to eat anything else, said Tatiana Lujána lawyer at ClientEarth, an advocacy group involved in challenging the project.

INEOS’s plant would not produce nurdles, but it would supply ethylene to facilities that do. The company says the project would simply replace older, less efficient ethane crackers, and is unlikely to increase Europe’s overall plastic production. Improved efficiency means the new cracker’s carbon footprint will be half the footprint of old ones, said Tom Crotty, an INEOS spokesman.

Bringing petrochemical expansion to Europe 

Construction of a new facility doesn’t guarantee that old facilities will close, opponents say. And even if they do close, the new plant will provide a stream of ethylene that sustains plastic production far into the future—just as Europe is trying to use less of the stuff.

A big European push to reduce single-use plastics is about to take effect in July. Throwaway items such as cutlery, plates, cups, and stirrers will be banned, and caps will have to be tethered to bottles so that they aren’t a separate problem. The effort is planned to ramp up in coming years with collection targets for plastic bottles and a requirement that bottles be composed of 25 percent recycled material by 2025.

Europe’s effort to tackle plastic waste is the world’s most ambitious, said Tim Grabiel, senior lawyer at the Environmental Investigation Agency, an advocacy group. Building new production capacity “is completely at odds” with the effort, and with Europe’s ambitious carbon-cutting goals, he said.

By way of response, PlasticsEurope, an industry group, emphasizes recycling as a solution, rather than reducing plastic production. Alternative materials carry their own environmental cost, the group notes.

Despite worries about plastic waste, global demand for the versatile material is likely to continue rising, industry analysts said. Its use in cars, planes, appliances, construction materials, clothing, and electronics means consumption typically tracks economic expansion, as well as the growth of middle classes in developing nations.

U.S. ethane now supplies 10 percent of European ethylene production, and the Antwerp plant would increase that to nearly 20 percent, said Patrick Kirby, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy and chemicals consulting firm. 

The new supply “is taking the U.S. petrochemical expansion and bringing it to Europe,” said Steven Feit, an attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, a research and advocacy group

A lifeline for struggling frackers

Ethane sales, at home and abroad, have provided much-needed revenue for U.S. fracking companies, many of which have struggled recently with huge debts and historically low natural gas and oil prices.

Europe is not the only place where American ethane is giving plastic makers a boost. Overall, U.S. ethane exports have skyrocketed 585 percent, from 800,000 tons in 2014 to more than 5.5 million tons in 2020, according to ICIS, an energy and chemicals analysis company. Canada is the top market, followed by India, Europe, and China, ICIS reports.

Big fossil fuel companies from ExxonMobil to Saudi Aramco see plastic as a growth product in a future where electric vehicles and climate change worries may put oil and gas production into permanent decline. The World Economic Forum predicted in 2016 that plastic production would double in 20 years. And the International Energy Agency expects petrochemicals, including plastics, to drive half of oil demand growth over the next three decades.

“Plastic is the fossil fuel industry’s Plan B,” Luján said.

Even so, by early last year the global expansion had led to an oversupply of raw plastic and its chemical building blocks. Initially, it seemed likely that 2020’s pandemic-induced global economic swoon would exacerbate the oversupply. Concerns about that may have been behind INEOS’s decision to postpone work on a plant meant to run alongside its Antwerp ethane cracker and make propylene, another plastic ingredient.

But it turns out that COVID-19 hasn’t been as bad for plastic makers as it first appeared. As a year of disruption transformed spending patterns, takeout food and online shopping drove demand for packaging, and masks and other protective equipment boomed too. Dollars that might once have gone to travel or entertainment have instead bought laptops, gaming consoles, exercise machines, and appliances, all containing plastic.

“Demand has held up really well,” said Will Beacham, deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business, a trade publication. “It now looks as though that oversupply may not be as severe as people feared.”

When it comes to plastic, though, critics say familiar market dynamics are often reversed. “What we’ve seen again and again is that plastic is a material where supply drives demand,” Feit said.

First, the glut of ethane has prompted the production of more plastic, he said. And companies foist that cheap material on consumers who often have little choice about what an item is made from or how it’s packaged.

“Ultimately the question is directional,” he said. “It’s how much plastic are we producing. And at present, we’re producing too much.” 

Beth Gardiner is the author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution 

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