Plastic pellets, or nurdles (the raw material used to create virtually every kind of plastic), are one of the most pervasive types of microplastics polluting the ocean.

Previous investigations undertaken by Fauna & Flora International, Scottish NGO Fidra, and others, have found pellets polluting seal nursing beaches in the UK and even polluting the wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands as demonstrated by NGO Mingas por el mar.

And now a new investigation has reaffirmed extensive pellet pollution around the Port of Antwerp – a protected European estuary.

The biggest transport and production hub for pellets in Europe, large areas of the Port of Antwerp are part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network, a series of nature protection areas in the European Union.

The Port of Antwerp is a breeding and feeding site for a number of threatened species, including the sand martin, the black-headed gull, the common tern, the natterjack toad and the brown argus butterfly. It is also an ecologically important site for a variety of orchid species including the marsh helleborine.

The investigation confirmed thousands of these lentil-sized pieces of plastic are polluting the Belgian coast and wildlife habitats in the area, and are also washing into the ocean. This is despite an initiative put in place by the plastics industry two years ago to supposedly eliminate pellet spills at the port.

“Poisoning sea life”

This is a serious, and to date largely overlooked, problem. Just last week the UN said microplastics are “poisoning sea life” and entering the human food chain via the consumption of seafood. “The health implications of microplastics on humans are not yet fully known,” the UN said, “but considering their prevalence in clothes, food, water and cosmetics, are expected to be far reaching.”

Pellets have become a common sight on many beaches around the world, as highlighted by Fidra’s The Great Nurdle Hunt. As a result of companies’ poor handling and transport practices it is estimated that billions of pellets end up in the ocean every year, where they are eaten by seabirds and other marine wildlife.

An industry initiative called Operation Clean Sweep, created to prevent pellet spills, has existed for almost 30 years. Many companies are signed up to it, but they still only represent a sliver of the entire plastic industry and few are acting to properly implement it.

“Unfortunately the findings are not a surprise,” said Hazel Akester, Marine Plastics Programme Officer at FFI. “The billions of plastic pellets found in the environment every year demonstrate that the current system for handling pellets is not working. Improved pellet handling and transparent communication across the full length of the plastic supply chain is long overdue.”

As a result, FFI is urging the plastics industry in Europe to support the development of a new global supply chain standard for pellet loss prevention, which has already been co-sponsored by government and investor partners. This standard is a key step towards setting a minimum acceptable standard for pellet handling, and could form the basis of future legislation.

Our call for measures to prevent plastic pellet pollution is echoed across the European Union, with MEP Bas Eickhout, Vice-Chair of the Green Party/European Free Alliance requesting “new legislation to prevent the leakage of plastic pellets in our environment” last week.

Similar investigations to those conducted in the Port of Antwerp confirm the need to enforce robust pellet handling measures across the European Union. Just last year, Danish NGO Plastic Change found pellets polluting the environment near companies that manufacture plastic products, including some that are signed up to Operation Clean Sweep.

Even the industry recognises that much more needs to be done. The plastics industry body Plastics Europe said last week in a report examining progress towards its Zero Pellet Loss initiative at the Port of Antwerp that: “Despite significant efforts already put in place by the polymers producers and logistics companies in the port area, the objective of zero pellet loss has not been achieved yet.” The report concluded that the pellet loss situation is “non-satisfactory” and that, “each partner in the plastics value chain needs to engage and continue efforts to tackle this issue, thereby securing an environment free of plastic pellets.”

“Europe urgently needs to get on top of plastic pellet pollution,” continues Hazel. “The plastics industry has admitted efforts to date have not been good enough. It is clear new measures, including a globally applicable standard, are needed.”