Press release

15 NGOs unite in renewed battle against Europe’s biggest plastics project

22 February 2024

Lawyers at ClientEarth, together with 14 NGOs, have taken a fresh legal stand against INEOS, as the petrochemicals giant continues its efforts to build Europe’s biggest plastics project.

The environmental groups have now launched their new case against the Flemish authorities, marking a new phase in their long legal battle against INEOS’ ‘Project One’.

The action follows a court ruling in July that sent the €3 billion plastics project back to square one.

According to the environmental groups, INEOS has once again failed to detail to authorities the true impact of the development on people, nature and the climate – not just in the region, but along the full value chain, including “Scope 3” emissions. The groups argue that the Flemish authorities’ approval of the project without first demanding a full assessment of its impacts is illegal under both EU and national laws.

ClientEarth lawyer Tatiana Luján said: “Plastics are an environmental issue, a people issue and a climate issue. Allowing what would be the largest plastics facility in Europe to go ahead would not just be a local disaster, but a global affront.

“Project One would help fuel more plastic production when we’re already at saturation point. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, so their production is catastrophic for the climate at every stage. The far-reaching consequences of this project are very real and cannot go unaccounted for.

“The changes made to the project’s new permit are just window dressing. The fact remains that Project One is both hugely destructive and completely unnecessary. However, the authorities have once again failed to acknowledge the blatant, toxic repercussions of the project, so we have no choice but to go back to court.”

The ruling in the summer was on a parallel case by the Dutch authorities, which mobilised after realising the extent of the Project One’s nitrogen impacts, which would creep over the border. The Netherlands has been struggling with nitrogen over-pollution and billions of Euros have been approved to buy out farmers and reduce nitrogen emissions as a result. Project One would pose an additional burden to the Netherland’s effort to clean up.

Stijn van Uffelen, representative of MOB said: “If Project One is built, it would become one of the top three biggest sources of nitrogen pollution in the Brabantse Wal protected area in the Netherlands. This protected site is home to century-old oaks that already suffer from too much nitrogen deposition – they’re essentially being drowned in fertiliser. Project One will only further exacerbate the problem. No amount of tinkering to its permit will make this cross-border pollution miraculously go away.”

The groups also argue that the pollution created by Project One continues to be severely underestimated locally. Flanders’ levels of nitrogen already far exceed the recommended safe levels for the environment and people’s health and Project One going ahead would only make matters worse. The situation has resulted in the agriculture sector being required to cut emissions, but many farmers feel industry is being given preferential treatment.

Mathieu Soete, Energy transition campaigner at Greenpeace Belgium said: “INEOS’ new and legally flawed permit for Project One is the perfect example of how the Flemish government stubbornly champions destructive projects. By consistently turning a blind eye to the harmful emissions of these industries, the government puts not only nature and climate, but also our farmers under pressure. Eliminating unwanted projects like this is a necessary step in resolving some of the tensions we see escalating today.”

Once the legal action is declared admissible by the Council of Permit Disputes, the Flemish authorities can submit their arguments against the groups’ case.


Notes to editors:

ClientEarth has been working with the following organisations to block INEOS’ ‘Project One’ plastics facility in the Port of Antwerp, Belgium: Bond Beter Leefmilieu (BBL), BOS+, Climaxi, Dryade, Fairfin, Gallifrey Foundation, Greenpeace Belgium, Grootouders voor het Klimaat, Klimaatzaak, Mobilisation for the Environment (MOB), Natuurbeschermingsvereniging De Steltkluut, Plastic Soup Foundation, Recycling Netwerk Benelux, and WWF Belgium.

The groups’ legal action will be communicated to the Environmental Ministry of Flanders, with a hearing eventually taking place before the Council of Permit Disputes, known as the Raad Voor Vergunningsbetwistingen in Dutch.

Legal action – background

ClientEarth and its partners have consistently taken legal action against ‘Project One’, INEOS’ €3 billion plastic project in Belgium. The NGOs have focused on the permitting procedure, arguing that the Flemish authorities failed to fully assess the environmental impacts of the expansion – a clear breach of EU and national laws.

The groups’ initial legal case delayed the project by over a year. Then, in 2021, INEOS cancelled half of its initial project, citing plastics demand issues, before pulling its permit entirely a few months later.

In 2022, ClientEarth and its partners finally took the Flemish authorities to court, after their appeal against the approval of INEOS’ new permit was dismissed.

While ClientEarth and its partners’ case was ongoing, the Dutch provinces of Zeeland and Noord-Brabant in the Netherlands launched a parallel case in 2022, focusing on Habitats Directive arguments and the impact of nitrogen emissions - arguments also used in the ClientEarth case.

In July 2023, the Council of Permit Disputes ruled in the Dutch authorities’ favour – meaning INEOS’ permit was null and void, and ClientEarth and its partners’ case no longer needed to be heard.

The environmental groups’ fresh legal action challenges the Flemish authorities’ approval of INEOS’ new permit, which it submitted following the court ruling last year.

Plastics and climate

Plastic production is the largest driver of the petrochemicals industry, as petrochemicals are derived from oil and gas. Petrochemical companies are therefore key drivers of global fossil fuel demand.

A new study by Center for Climate Integrity found that plastic producing companies have known for more than 30 years that recycling is not an adequate solution to plastic waste, but promoted it as one regardless.

A report by FairFin revealed that several of the world’s biggest international banks have collectively invested almost €22 billion in just two petrochemical companies – INEOS and Borealis – over the past five years, exposing themselves to significant financial risk.

According to INEOS’ Environmental Impact Assessment for Project One, about 90% of the ethylene production worldwide is for plastic applications. According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), approximately 63% of the global production of ethylene can be linked to the production of plastic that aligns very closely with the definition of single-use plastics.

A report by Material Economics observed that plastics operate like a slow-burn combustion system as they release carbon emissions at every stage of their life cycle. According to the report, even with a high recycling rate of 70% (against the reality of less than 10% today), some two-thirds of the carbon would be released as CO2 to the atmosphere within 15 years.

A recent analysis by IEEFA also shows the existential risks facing Project One. The briefing questions the viability of the project by identifying a series of weak financial conditions that it faces were it to go ahead.

Project One – profiling the harm

Up to 167,000 tonnes of pre-production plastic pellets – the raw materials for manufacturing plastics, known as ‘nurdles’ – are estimated to leak into the environment in Europe every year. This makes pellets the second largest source of primary microplastic pollution. Spain recently declared an environmental emergency after millions of plastic pellets washed up on Spain’s northern shoreline following a shipping container spill.

The Port of Antwerp is immediately beside a Natura 2000 site, assigned by the EU to protect habitats and wildlife. Existing plastics plants in the port are already leaking nurdles, which build up in the soil and can be carried downstream. These gravely compromise habitats and threaten endangered bird species as they frequently eat the plastic pellets, which are mistaken for fish eggs.

The 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. Earlier this year, Plastic Soup Foundation published a report by a whistleblower which showed that the Western Scheldt is already heavily polluted with plastic nurdles, many of which come from producers in Antwerp.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2020 and the Flemish Environment Agency (Vlaamse Milieumaatschappij), Flanders’ levels of nitrogen far exceed the recommended safe levels, which can have severe impacts on the environment and people’s health. Project One would further exacerbate the region’s nitrogen pollution problem as one of the byproducts of burning fossil fuels is nitrogen.

Tatiana Luján is a Colombian-qualified lawyer.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.