Society would be lost without plastic. But it continues to be demonised in newspapers, on TV and on social media.
In the latest attack - watched by millions on television in the UK - Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall questioned whether companies, like INEOS, should be making less plastic. Not more.
"The more plastic this industry produces, the more plastic will end up in our lives, whether we want it or not," he told viewers.
But the main focus of the three-part BBC series, War on Plastic, was on single-use, plastic packaging.
“The fundamental premise was that plastic packaging is evil,” said INEOS Communications Director Tom Crotty. “But there was no recognition of the benefits to the reduction in food waste because it keeps food fresh for longer.”
More troubling though for INEOS, was that the importance of plastic to our everyday lives was overshadowed. Viewers were left with the feeling that all plastic is bad.
“Much of the rise in plastics’ demand around the world is not from packaging,” said Tom. Plastic is in demand from car manufacturers, the construction industry, the engineering and pharmaceutical industries and hospitals.
Lightweight plastic parts in cars and planes have reduced fuel consumption, leading to a reduction in harmful emissions.
Insulation makes modern buildings far more energy efficient.
Heart stents, catheters, syringes, blood bags, prosthetics, pill casings, MRI machines, incubators, dialysis machines, sterile pharmaceutical packaging and operating theatres are all made of plastic.
And plastic pipes – which are easier and cheaper to install – are being used in some of the poorest parts of the world to bring fresh water to villagers for the first time.
“80% of our plastic goes into these sorts of applications and not into packaging,” said Tom. “That’s what’s driving our growth. It is much more than straws and stirrers.”
During the hour-long programme, Hugh also questioned the logic of INEOS’ decision to ship shale gas from the US to Scotland so it could make more plastic.
But Tom said the manufacturing base had simply shifted from China and the Middle East to the USA because America had become, thanks to vast reserves of cheap shale gas, more competitive.
“Growth doesn’t come from making more plastics,” he said. “It comes from demand for the plastic by consumers. I could build a factory to make a billion typewriters but nobody would buy them.”
INEOS, which manufactures billions of translucent plastic pellets every year for other industries, had provided the BBC film crew with open access to its Grangemouth site.
During filming, Tom said 100% of INEOS polymers could be recycled, but currently, only about 14% of plastic was recycled. “Much of it ends up in landfill but we think this is a waste,” he said. “We want to use recycled plastic waste as a raw material because plastic should be used over and over again. And then, at the end of its life, we can recover the useful energy it contains by burning it.”
INEOS is currently working on how to chemically recycle plastic. A new, leading-edge, non-mechanical process would turn plastic back into its basic molecular level so it could be fed as a raw material back into the plastic processes.
“This holy grail of plastic recycling is fast becoming a reality and will mean we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to make our products,” he said.
INEOS has signed joint development agreements with Pyrowave, Agylix and GreenMantra. Using their patented technology and INEOS’ manufacturing infrastructure, waste plastics could be turned back into chemical monomer building blocks.
“These building blocks will replace a portion of virgin raw material in our polymerisation process,” said Tom.
And on the ground, INEOS is obsessive about zero pellet loss, at its own plants and through its hauliers and customers, as part of its commitment to Operation Cleansweep, the plastic industry’s global initiative to handle plastic pellets with care so that they don’t ultimately end up in the sea.
Discover more about plastic on Professor Mark Miodownik's podcast on the BBC website here.