The interlacing pipelines of a massive new plastics facility gleam in the sunshine beside the rolling waters of the Ohio River. I’m sitting on a hilltop above it, among poplars and birdsongs in rural Beaver County, Pennsylvania, 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. The area has experienced tremendous change over the past few years — with more soon to come.
The ethane “cracker plant” belongs to Royal Dutch Shell, and after 10 years and $6 billion it’s about to go online. Soon it will transform a steady flow of fracked Marcellus gas into billions of plastic pellets — a projected 1.6 million tons of them per year, each the size of a pea. From this northern Appalachia birthplace, they’ll travel the globe to make the plastic goods of modern life, from single-use bags to longer-lasting sports equipment.
The plant’s construction has lifted a hardscrabble local economy, but it also embodies an epic global struggle.