THE ethylene plant at Mossmorran, Fife, that has been at the centre of years of controversy over its flaring and huge greenhouse gas emissions, was in the news again these past couple of weeks – and not because of another bout of flarings.

Climate protesters gathered there for a climate camp in the run-up to COP26, declaring the need for a “just transition” and drawing attention to the plant’s impacts. In the same week, Fife Council announced its approval for ExxonMobil to install a ground flare at its site. Progress, one might think.

We will not miss that rising flame, like some belching dragon, sometimes visible from 120 miles away.

But the bigger problem of Mossmorran is not going to be solved with any new, more sophisticated, flare.

For Mossmorran is a meeting point between the two big pollution stories of our time, plastic and greenhouse gases. It’s part of a story of how our use of fossil fuels has left its imprint everywhere. For, while the ethylene its steam-cracker produces can be used for other purposes, chiefly it is converted into forms of plastic, a substance that not only litters our oceans, but when broken down contaminates our waters and even our bodies. Among the products ExxonMobil lists as using the Mossmorran ethylene are food packaging, medical equipment and car parts.

READ MORE: Protest held outside Mossmorran plant following series of flare ups

It has been estimated that even if all plastic production stopped today, about five billion tonnes of it still in landfill will continue to break down, flooding the environment with microplastics, in what Albert Koelmans, a scientist who has studied human lifetime microplastic exposure, has called a “plastic time bomb”.

A 2020 study titled Breaking The Plastic Wave found we have the solutions today to reduce the annual flow of plastic into the oceans by 80 per cent by 2040. But what was needed was a “shift of investment away from the production of new plastic to the development of reuse and refill systems and sustainable substitute materials”, as well as “expanded recycling facilities, more collection infrastructure, new delivery models”. Not billions of tonnes more new plastic.

Mossmorran is a reminder, in the run-up to COP26, that we can’t afford to see the climate crisis as a separate issue, but rather part of a wider issue, relating to all pollution. As yet, of course, plastic pollution is not something the oil and petrochemicals industry is shouldering significant responsibility for. On its website, ExxonMobil describes plastic pollution as “part of a larger issue related to global waste management infrastructure” and draws attention to its own role in finding the answers, which include “increasing plastic recyclability”. But this is a company that, according to a study by Minderoo, still tops the list of producers of single-use plastic.

Meanwhile, it’s not as if the emissions problem from plastic production is some small issue.

A 2019 study by the Centre for International Environmental Law concluded emissions from global plastic production and incineration could reach an astonishing 1.34 gigatonnes annually in 2030.

Predictions globally for the ethylene market are that it will grow, rather than reduce, by around 5.6% by 2027. Five years ago, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted production of plastics would “double in 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050”. The Mossmorran plant manager recently said he hoped the site would continue to operate for at least another 20 years.

One argument for growth in the industry, as with the rest of the oil industry, is jobs and GDP – hence the frequent calls now for a just transition. In 2016, the petrochemicals industry supported a £3.5 billion contribution to UK GDP. There’s a clear danger that, even as we ramp down emissions from oil and gas, we allow the maxing out of fossil fuels for plastics. The big players of the oil industry are fighting to continue to grow and make money. But we need to slash back our virgin plastic production. Plastic needs its own serious reduction targets, its equivalent of net zero.