On 16th January 2019 news was leaked through the German paper Handelsblatt of The Alliance to End Plastic Waste. A new industrial coalition that will invest $1billion over the next five years in a campaign to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the world. Here was a powerful body of major corporations determining to address the scourge that was besetting the Earth and causing so much distress to so many, especially in the Western Metropolitan society – the plague of plastic.
In parallel with the seemingly endless tide of plastic waste has come a rising tide of concern. In December 2017 the final episode of Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II’ series thrust the issue into the mainstream and now rarely a day passes without a further report on the impact of plastic refuse on wildlife, on the scale of the plastic gyres in the Pacific, or on the mounds of waste on the world’s beaches. And the media also reports the fight back – towns declaring themselves plastic free, campaigns to make London ‘a city that breaks free of plastic’, The Daily Mail’s ‘Break the Plastic Habit!’ initiative and the valiant people (so often women) who have dedicated their lives to gathering plastic from the beaches and rivers.
We salute Fran Crowe, who has been part of the Platform extended family for a long time and who, since 2006, has made the focus of her powerful work the gathering of plastics on the beaches, particularly in Suffolk. She fashions beautiful, shocking installations from her finds. In 2007 she set herself the challenge of ‘saving’ one square mile of sea, by collecting 46,000 pieces of plastics whilst walking along the shore near where she lives. Through her art she has made tangible the often invisible pollution of the oceans.
There are now stirrings in the legislatures. The British Parliament announced in September 2018 that it would replace single-use plastic in the catering provided to the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In December 2018 the European Parliament and European Commission reached provisional political agreement on new measures to tackle marine litter at source, targeting ten plastic products. It seems that with the announcement of The Alliance to End Plastic Waste the world of corporate capital is finally waking up.
But the Plastic Waste initiative is not without its critics. The Recycling Netwerk, based in Utrecht, Netherlands released a statement that highlighted that the problem of plastics is not so much one of waste, but one of production. That the solution to the world drowning in plastic refuse is not only through spending more time litter picking – though this is vital – but by stopping the manufacture of plastics in the first place. The Netwerk highlighted the fact that several of the signatories to the Waste Alliance are also some of the world’s largest producers of plastics – including Shell, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, BASF and LyondellBasell.
Shell, for example, is currently ramping up its production of the chemicals that underpin plastics by building a new plant at Potter Township on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. It intends to use fracked gas as the factory’s feedstock. This works aims to generate each year 1.6 million tonnes of polyethylene, the world’s most common plastic.
Rob Buurman of Netwerk Recycling declared:
“It is interesting to see [the chemicals industry] finally acknowledge that there is a problem with their plastics. But unfortunately, this initiative does not tackle the problem at its source: the gigantic production of 400m tonnes of plastic each year, with 60m metric tonnes produced in Europe alone.”
Buurman said street, river and beach clean-ups would not work as long as there was a steady stream of new plastics being produced and collected in a half-hearted way. “These kind of actions want to cure the image of plastic. But plastics don’t have an image problem – the exaggerated use of it in products with a short lifespan is a problem in itself,”
The spokesperson for Plastic Waste pushed back against this criticism: “Reducing the amount of plastic required to create products while preserving the benefits people rely on and making plastics easier to recycle is definitely part of the solution. … Some of the members (of the Alliance) do produce plastic, and some have announced expansions to meet the demands of a growing population…”
The PR executive continued:
“Plastic provides many critical health, safety and sustainability benefits that help improve and maintain living standards, hygiene and nutrition around the world and replacing it could, in the end, do more harm than good… We must maintain the critical benefits that plastics bring to people and communities. It is not either/or. With a thoughtful, comprehensive and strategic approach, we can do both.”
This response of the corporates to concern over plastics is archetypal. Blame not the production, for what is produced is of vital import to the world (especially those in the ‘under developed world’), but call for everyone to come together in addressing the problem of the waste.
The exact same rhetoric is applied to oil & gas extraction – it is not a problem of production but of waste. So we need to deal with CO2 emissions: by increasing efficiency, by planting trees, by carbon capture & storage technology, and so on. Once again ‘Let us all work together to address the problem of waste’, do not cause division by harping on about production.
They tried the same strategy in the 1960s and ‘70s around pesticides, responding to the widespread concern that grew on the back of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’.
This narrative always obscures the fundamental fact that the point of chemical production is not to meet the social need for carrier bags or hip replacements, laptops or syringes (or the plastic glasses through which I peer at the world), but to generate return on private capital, to increase private wealth.
There is one plastics manufacturer who is refreshingly open and blunt on these matters, and seems to be reluctant to participate in this industry wide image initiative by the Plastic Waste Alliance, he is the head of INEOS, Sir Jim Ratcliffe. He is a symbol of the new phase in the war over fossil fuels. As the likes of Shell and BP seem to waver a little, INEOS is stepping to the front of the battle. For INEOS, a name unheard of by so many of us, is the one of the world’s largest manufacturers of chemicals and oil products. Their strap line is ‘The Word for Chemicals.’ It has a turn over of $60 billion.
Netwerk Recycling touched on this in their announcement, pointing out that in the same week that news came about the Plastic Waste alliance, INEOS had made a press statement on a € 3 billion investment (equivalent to $3.4 billion) to create one of the largest chemicals plants in European history on the banks of the River Schelde in Antwerp.
There’s an important backstory to INEOS’ move. Ratcliffe was once an employee of BP’s Saltend chemical plant by Hull but was sacked. However in 1992, having become a venture capitalist and set up on his own as Inspec, he bought BP’s Hythe plastics factory near Southampton and its sister factory in Carshalton on the River Wandle in South West London. In 1995, after changing the company’s name to INEOS, he made his boldest move by purchasing BP’s plant in Antwerp.
BP was keen to be rid of this vast works in Belgium that it had had a stake in since the 1950s, for the company was rapidly pulling out of all chemicals investments in Europe. In 1994 it had put the nail in the coffin of its Baglan Petrochemicals Plant in South Wales – which had a ship dedicated to exporting raw product from Baglan to Antwerp. Soon after closing Baglan, BP decided to invest heavily in a chemicals plant in Yangtze, China, taking a 51% stake in the Yangtze River Acetyls Co. Ltd. The corporation was shifting capital from Western Europe to the Far East and leaving in its wake areas such as South Wales blighted by deindustrialisation. It looked as though the same fate would befall Antwerp.
However Ratcliffe bought the plant and stripped it to the bone, managing thereby to turn it around as a profitable venture and maintain production. It remained a hub in the chemicals world of North Western Europe. In 2010 INEOS announced that they would build a new 1 million tonne per year deep-sea Ethylene Terminal at Zwijndrecht, with a link direct to INEOS’s ethylene consuming factory in Antwerp and another plant in the Rotterdam area, as well as into Europe via the Aethylen-Rohrleitungs-Gesellschaft (ARG) pipeline to Koln, feeding plants such as those run by BASF at Dormagen. INEOS was by then the largest producer of ethylene in Europe. Ratcliffe, a buccaneering capitalist now had his hands on the chemical heart of the EU.
The same pattern evolved in the UK Sector of the North Sea offshore fields. INEOS began in 2005 by purchasing Grangemouth Refinery which is supplied largely by UK North Sea oil and is a vital organ in the UK Sector machine. By 2015 it was purchasing gas fields, such as Breagh and Clipper South, 40 miles east off Norfolk. In 2017 it brought the Forties Pipeline System through which passes 40% of the UK’s oil and the greater part of all of its offshore oil production. Late last year INEOS bid for all of Chevron’s stakes in the UK North Sea aiming to make Ratcliffe one of the largest players in that massive industrial realm. As with the control of the Antwerp plant, the Zwijndrecht dock and the ARG pipeline, INEOS now had its hands on the oil heart of the UK.
Who is this Jim Ratcliffe? Sixty-six years old, a defiantly self-made man from near Manchester, Ratcliffe was declared the UK’s ‘Richest Man’ in the Sunday Times ‘Rich List 2018’ and was knighted in the same year. He owns an extensive home near Hythe in Hampshire (close to the first plant he brought – now closed) and two luxury yachts. His base is in Monaco and INEOS is registered in Switzerland. He is an archetypal symbol of the new era of Britain’s oil & gas realm, an era when it is no longer dominated solely by UK-based private capital in the form of corporations such as BP and Shell, but by foreign-based private capital in the form of INEOS and Chrysaor. These latter companies are almost entirely hidden from public view. It is not surprising that most of us have not heard of the name INEOS.
Ratcliffe and INEOS, though foreign based and paying little or no tax in the UK, continue to play a key role in shaping the politics of this country – just as BP and Shell have done since the 1910s. INEOS has been in the media for it’s determined pursuit of fracking in the UK and has been the object of protests in Scotland, Yorkshire, Cheshire and elsewhere. This month Greenpeace UK revealed that INEOS had directly threatened to close its Seal Sands chemicals plant, on Teesside, if had to abide by EU environmental legislation. The plant has broken legal pollution limits 176 times in the last four years and INEOS wrote to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business & Energy, to say that the company would close – with the loss of 2,000 jobs – rather than invest to comply with legislation unless Clark found a way to help it “defer compliance with regulations.” This, and INEOS’s push to frack in Britain, are perfect examples of the type of lobbying that the UK government has long been subjected to by the oil & gas industry. But the UK’s ability to resist such pressure, and thus to defend the quality of our air and the ecosystems of our rivers, will be far weaker if Britain steps outside the EU.
Not surprisingly Ratcliffe has been a rare example of an outspoken supporter of Brexit in the ‘business community’. So we tie back plastics to Brexit. Here is a man who wants to drive the UK out of the European Union, apparently because he believes in Britain having a bright ‘free market future’ outside the constraints on Bruxelles bureaucracy. A man whose company is central to the economy of the UK and a key player in the industrial systems of a number of key EU states, including Belgium and Germany, and yet who himself chooses to live outside the EU in the tax havens on its periphery. And a man who has been virulently outspoken against EU Environmental legislation, whilst being in receipt of millions of Euros in EU subsidies.
And a man who is doubtless lobbying against the attempt by the European Commission to limit plastic waste. For as we have seen, although a central producer of plastics, INEOS is not a participant in the Plastic Waste Alliance.
Thankfully the shameless manoeuvring of Ratcliffe – being so central to the UK’s energy system and demanding subsidies whilst not paying tax – has not gone unnoticed. The shift to be domiciled in Monaco is reported to be saving £4 billion that would have gone to the UK Exchequer. On February 17th 2019 Labour’s John McDonnell told The Financial Times: “Any government would look askance at Mr Ratcliffe’s advice and representations (for state subsidies) from here on given the attitude he is displaying to our country in his tax affairs. Patriots pay their taxes.” And the Daily Mirror reported that McDonnell said: “This is a super-rich person. We’re not talking about someone who’s on his uppers… For every penny that’s avoided in this way in taxation, what does that mean? It means the NHS doesn’t treat patients, it means our children don’t get the full investment in their education and it means less safety on our streets. I appeal to people like this – this is a great country to live in, just make your contribution like the rest of us.”
INEOS and Ratcliffe, and others like him are the new lords of the oil & gas world and the struggle to protect the climate, address other environmental plagues such as plastic waste, and ensure we build a more socially just and equal society, will have to be fought on this battleground. Just as INEOS strives to generate the highest profit whether operating within or without the EU, the UK movement for social & ecological justice will need to engage in this battle whether we remain in the EU or leave. In both scenarios we urgently need to ‘Reform’ the economy.
 The UK government’s proposed action in 2018 also focuses largely on waste not production – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/single-use-plastics-budget-2018-brief.
 Or at least to colour code different types of plastic to ease recycling and to ban composite products, for example where a cap and a bottle are made of different materials.
With thanks to Fran Crowe & Terry Macalister.
The themes in this blog are drawn from research for the forthcoming book – ‘Crude Britannia – How Big Oil shaped a nation’s past and future’, by Terry Macalister and James Marriott. Due for publication in 2020