Plastic Pellet Spill Highlights Huge Pollution Problem in EU, and Beyond

As voluntary controls fall short, EU must adopt broad rules to prevent more harm to nature

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Plastic Pellet Spill Highlights Huge Pollution Problem in EU, and Beyond
A close-up shows a person’s hands—clad in very thin orange rubber gloves—cupping a small pile consisting of thousands of tiny plastic pellets. Many more pellets are visible on the ground in the background.
Edu & Dayana Del Puerto for Noia Limpa

An unnatural “white tide” is covering the beaches of the Spanish fishing region of Galicia with millions of tiny plastic pellets after a cargo ship lost several containers at sea, sending 1,000 sacks of pellets into the Atlantic Ocean. The magnitude of the spill, from the vessel Toconao on Dec. 8, is alarming: Each tonne of pellets contains about 50 million individual pieces, and the tiny spherical granules have been found on the coastline from Pontevedra to Asturias, northeast towards the Basque country, and in some parts of Portugal.

Spanish public prosecutors have launched an investigation to examine the cause of the accident. The scale of the pollution has also raised fears of long-term ecological damage and its impact on the local fishing industry. Sadly, the disaster is just the latest incident to highlight the urgent need for robust measures to prevent such spills and ensure a swift and effective response when they occur.

Plastic pellets—the building blocks of most plastic products—are the third-largest source of microplastic emissions in the European Union. Every day, the equivalent of up to 20 truckloads of pellets spills into the environment in Europe as they make their way across a supply chain of plastic producers, converters, recyclers, and logistics companies. Chronic losses of pellets have been documented at every stage of the supply chain.

Fortunately, pellet pollution is preventable, and solutions to curb pellet loss can be implemented immediately. These solutions must, however, be mandatory and comprehensive. Although industry-led voluntary programs such as Operation Clean Sweep have developed prevention and management measures, less than 5% of the European plastics industry has signed on to this initiative, and pellet emissions to the environment have continued even though the scheme has been in place for over 15 years.

EU member states and civil society alike have been calling for action on pellet pollution for years. France adopted legislation in 2021 (Decree No. 2021-461) requiring all operators handling more than 5 tonnes of pellets per year to go through regular audits and implement measures to prevent the loss of industrial pellets. Last spring, five EU Member States, recognising that national and voluntary efforts are insufficient, united in a call for EU-level preventive measures to reduce plastic pellet loss. In 2021, the 16 contracting parties of the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (the OSPAR Convention) adopted a recommendation setting forth standards and certification schemes for the entire plastic supply chain.

The OSPAR Recommendation, though a step forward, may not be sufficient to fully tackle pellet pollution because the contracting parties rely on voluntary adherence by member states. Since 2017, Rethink Plastic, an alliance of leading European NGOs, has called for ambitious, legally binding measures targeting as many sources as possible, promoting a mandatory supply-chain certification approach to prevent plastic pellet losses. Even citizens are trying to do their part through coastline and field cleanups across Europe—on one beach alone they collected nearly 1 million pellets in just two hours—but that is no substitute for broad regulatory action.

On that front, there is a ray of hope. Last autumn, the European Commission released a proposal to regulate pellet losses. Now, it’s over to legislators in the European Parliament and the Council to strengthen this proposal by introducing mandatory measures for all operators handling pellets in the supply chain as well as strengthening and harmonising systems for risk assessment and certification to ensure implementation on the ground. It is essential that pellets operators adopt strong due diligence practices to make certain that levels of responsibility and accountability throughout the supply chain are reflective of the serious impacts of pellet spills on the environment and public health. These measures are vital to prevent, contain and clean up pellet emissions, and to safeguard ecosystems from further harm.

In doing so, the EU can greatly limit future pellet spills, demonstrate global leadership and set an important precedent on how to eradicate this form of plastic pollution worldwide.

With EU elections approaching in June 2024, there’s limited time for policymakers to act on this issue and set a global precedent. The Pew Charitable Trusts urges EU policymakers to commit to the 30% microplastic pollution reduction target—detailed in the European Zero Pollution Action Plan—which would advance the objectives of its Green Deal policy initiative and reinforce Europe’s leadership in combating plastic pollution.

Selene Álvarez Peña works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ preventing ocean plastics project.

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