9 November 2020
As the EU moves to crack down on both carbon emissions and plastic waste, the Flemish authorities in Belgium have opened the way for petrochemicals giant Ineos to launch a €3 billion plastics plant expansion in the Port of Antwerp.
If allowed to go ahead, it risks adding more plastic to an already saturated market, and causing irreversible damage to nature and the climate.
ClientEarth lawyer Maria Jolie Veder explains: “The Flemish authorities’ decision to welcome yet more plastics refineries directly contradicts its own commitments to reduce plastic pollution and tackle climate change. This project will only exacerbate the climate and pollution crises.”
With legal action, we caused initial delays to the project, which is known as “Project One”. We argued the project was given the green light without fully considering the full extent of its environmental and climate impacts – a clear breach of EU and national laws.
Now, things have progressed. To build the plant, Ineos must clear 55 hectares of woodland – home to protected wildlife. They got approval from the authorities to do so, despite not yet having full permission for the plant extension itself.
Deforesting before the rest of the project is given the go ahead could result in the trees being cut down and wildlife and habitats being destroyed for nothing. So, together with 13 environmental organisations, we filed for an injunction in an urgent legal bid to block the clearance of woodland necessary for the construction of Project One.
In a decision taken by the Council for Permit Disputes in Belgium, the permit has been blocked – preventing the felling of the forest until the impact of the project can be fully reviewed by the court.
ClientEarth lawyer Maria Jolie Veder said: “The judgment shows that developing a project without fully assessing its impact cannot be allowed. By submitting separate requests for different permits,this project blatantly disregards national and EU environmental law. It masks the devastating and far-reaching consequences the project will have – from the hugely carbon-intensive manufacturing process to the inevitable plastic waste from its end products. The judgment clearly shows that these manoeuvres will not hold before a court.
Existing plastics plants in the Port are already leaking lentil-sized pellets – the raw materials for manufacturing plastics, known as ‘nurdles’ – into the environment. They compromise habitats and threaten endangered bird species as they frequently eat the fish egg-shaped pellets.
The likely increase in the Port’s plastic pellet pollution generated by Project One risks further jeopardising protected habitats and wildlife, but is an issue not reflected in planning documents.
But the pollution problem is also not restricted to Belgium. Due to its location on the national border, the environmental effects of Project One will likely impact the Netherlands.
Hanneke Smulders from Dutch nature association Natuurbeschermingsvereniging De Steltkluut said: “Our volunteers have been able to observe first-hand the ongoing environmental pollution that plastic nurdles are causing on the shores of the river Western Scheldt and in protected Natura 2000 sites in the Netherlands where lots of birds come to forage.”
Project One will not only have huge climate and environmental repercussions, which the operators have not accounted for, they have also failed to provide sufficient proof that it is in line with in a climate-neutral and circular economy. Nor has Ineos agreed to any commitment or policy to achieve the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement.
Olivier Beys of Bond Beter Leefmilieu (BBL) said: “It is the government’s duty to ensure new permits align with its national and European commitments. It should require Ineos to provide these guarantees in a permit request for the full project. If not, the government actively and consciously renounces its responsibilities.”
The business risks of investing in more plastic capacity have also been ignored. A global regulatory clampdown on plastic waste and a shift to decarbonisation means that the plant risks becoming a stranded asset as plastic demand stalls.
Frank Vanaerschot from ethical finance experts FairFin said: “The oversupply of plastics, the project's incompatibility with the need for stricter measures for the use of plastics, the volatility of the shale gas market, and the over-indebtedness of Ineos are sizeable economic risks. The only sound long-term economic decision is to cancel the project and to put these billions into more future-proof industrial projects.”
The legal fight against the project will continue.
Environmental organisations that joined ClientEarth in filing for the injunction are: Natuurbeschermingsvereniging De Steltkluut, Klimaatzaak, Greenpeace Belgium, StRaten Generaal, Fairfin, BOS+, Recycling Network Benelux, Grootouders voor het Klimaat, Climaxi, Bond Beter Leefmilieu (BBL), WWF Belgium, Zero Waste Europe and Gallifrey Foundation