Disposable single-use plastics are one of the biggest threats to our environment in the world. Aside from filling our lands and oceans with trash and changing the chemical balance of our air and water, they encourage an industry that has caused untold damage to the planet.
Despite a cultural shift in attitude towards environmental conservation, the gas industry has stepped up plastics production. Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco have invested in new manufacturing plants. The plan is to switch to manufacturing as the world moves away from gas-powered energy, which will allow the gas companies to use the reserves of ethane they've been drilling as a byproduct of the fracking boom.
“In the context of a world trying to shift off of fossil fuels as an energy source, this is where [oil and gas companies] see the growth,” said Steven Feit, a staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, an advocacy group.
“They’re looking for a way to monetize it,“ Feit said. “You can think of plastic as a kind of subsidy for fracking.”
The Shell Corporation is building a $6 billion ethane cracking plant—a facility that turns ethane into ethylene, a building block for many kinds of plastic—in Monaca, Pennsylvania, 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. In addition, there are plans for ethane cracking plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where the fracking boom has become a big part of the economy. Hailed as a “renaissance in US plastics manufacturing,” these plants will produce up to 1.6 million tons of plastics annually, mostly single use items but they're also manufacturing plastics for industrial use.
“That’s why 2020 is so crucial. There are a lot of these facilities that are in the permitting process. We’re pretty close to it all being too late,” said Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a former regional director for the US Environmental Protection Agency “If even a quarter of these ethane cracking facilities are built, it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.”