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Reducing plastic pellet loss

Nurdles found near Edinburgh. Credit Barbara Agnew
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Written by: Tanya Cox
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Every plastic product we own or use was made from many much smaller pieces of plastic – most commonly tiny, coloured pellets roughly the size and shape of split peas.

Because they are small (5mm or less), cheap, light and buoyant, pre-production pellets are often spilled during manufacture and transportation and can very easily find their way into the marine environment.

Once at sea, these plastic pellets (and other forms of pre-production plastic, including plastic powders, beads and flakes) pose the same risks as many other microplastics: they can last in the marine environment for hundreds of years, litter our coastlines, get eaten by a variety of marine animals (from seabirds to microscopic plankton), release toxic chemicals (or adsorb and concentrate other toxic pollutants already found in seawater) and find their way up the food chain – potentially even into the food on our dinner plates.

278 nurdles recovered from one fulmars stomach. Credit: J. A. van Franeker, Wageningen IMARES

278 nurdles recovered from one fulmars stomach. Credit: J. A. van Franeker, Wageningen IMARES

The accidental release of these pellets (which are also known as ‘nurdles’, ‘mermaid’s tears’ and plastic resin) has long been recognised as both an environmental and a reputational risk by the plastics industry.

As a result, the industry itself has developed a set of voluntary best practices called Operation Clean Sweep, which focuses on preventing pellet spills before they happen and gives guidance on how to clean them up effectively if they do.

Although Operation Clean Sweep has been in place for many years, to-date only a few plastics producers have actually signed up to the scheme, and there is little in place to reassure consumers, brands and retailers as to which producers are making positive steps towards reducing pellet loss.

For this reason, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been engaging directly with global plastics producers and trade associations in the UK and Europe to ensure that Operation Clean Sweep is implemented as widely as possible and is developing simple reporting tools to make it easier for end-users to understand which manufacturers are taking effective measures to prevent pellet loss.

In addition, we are working with our partner organisations, Plastic Soup Foundation in the Netherlands and Fidra, which runs the Great Nurdle Hunt in Scotland. Initially, we are helping to identify pellet “hotspots” in the Westerschelde estuary on the Dutch-Belgian border, downstream from the Port of Antwerp. Once identified, these hotspots will be added to Fidra’s existing database of pellet litter sightings on beaches across the world (a map of pellet sightings compiled by Fidra is shown below).

By working closely with the producers, transporters, manufacturers and buyers of plastic products to ensure pellet loss prevention is well-publicised and understood and by increasing our understanding of where pellets are likely to build up, we intend to bring together a coalition of like-minded organisations tasked with addressing this emerging pollution issue and ensuring improved industry response and practice.

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Tanya Cox

Tanya has recently joined FFI to help develop a new programme of work addressing the extent and impact of marine plastic pollution. With a master’s degree in Oceanography, Tanya has a broad understanding of oceanic and atmospheric systems and a keen interest in climate change, marine ecology and biodiversity conservation. She has worked in Europe, Africa and the Middle East in project management, research and monitoring, environmental education and the design of community outreach programs and conservation initiatives. Tanya has experience of habitat assessments (reef, seagrass, seabirds and fish), water quality monitoring and the design of marine turtle conservation and monitoring programmes.

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