Prove your humanity

Reid Frazier followed Marcellus shale gas to Scotland, where ethane is being turned into plastic. See all of his reports here.

The massive refinery and petrochemical complex in Grangemouth, Scotland, run by INEOS, was one of the first overseas plants to receive Pennsylvania ethane. The refinery and petrochemical plant, a seemingly unending complex of cooling towers, pipes and valves, is nudged up against the town of Grangemouth, on the Firth of Forth, a long estuary that stretches into the North Sea. It was first built up in the 1850s to process oil from shale found nearby, and has grown in the century and a half since.

I was given a tour of the area around the refinery by Kevin Ross, president of the Scottish Plastics and Rubber Association. Ross once worked at Grangemouth, back when it was run by British Petroleum (BP); some people in the town still refer to the plant as the ‘BP’ refinery. Now he runs his own company and advocates for his industry.

“I can’t underestimate the importance of the American shale gas and the feedstock costs for INEOS,” Ross said. “It is driving investment decisions into Grangemouth which wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t for the availability of the shale gas.”

Ross is a mild-mannered evangelist for the plastics industry, and he’s enthusiastic about recycling. He runs a company that’s come up with a way to recycle plastic out of mixed streams, one of the biggest hurdles of plastics recycling, and its first plant is in operation in England.

After touring the plant, Ross took me to the offices of his company, Impact Solutions, in an industrial park a few blocks from the refinery. The company tests products for plastics manufacturers, and on the ground floor is its lab: a kind of torture chamber for inanimate objects. The company’s technicians drop, heat, freeze, pressurize, and artificially weather plastic and metal products in a variety of machines. Some of those products need to be certified for certain weights and pressures, or to keep their color, as in the case of reflective signs. His company tests the products to make sure they work the way they’re intended to.

Ross said the shale gas that INEOS is importing to Grangemouth from Marcus Hook near Philadelphia will be processed into plastic products. They include food packaging, but also include more industrial plastics, like those used in cars, and those automobiles will be sent abroad, possibly to the U.S.

“Business is global,” he said.

The U.K. and the EU are moving away from single-use plastic, because of concerns about the ubiquity of plastic debris in the oceans, and micro-plastics in the environment. There is a plastic bag fee of around 7 cents at most stores in the UK, so many customers bring their own bags. But Ross says plastic isn’t going away anytime soon. He says it’s still the best material for some things.

‘Take a cucumber,” he said. “If you wrap it in plastic, it will last for 15 days. If you don’t, it will go bad in just a few days.”

Modern life, he said, would be unrecognizable were it not for the things made out of oil and gas at places like Grangemouth.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.