Joanna is the Media Relations Manager at Fauna & Flora International
Sand, pebbles… pieces of plastic? If you’ve taken a trip to the beach recently, you’ll have likely noticed the increasingly prominent appearance of some small, strange pieces of plastic littering the coastline.
Those lentil-sized pieces of plastic are, however, not an odd one-off. They are called plastic pellets or ‘nurdles’ and are melted together to create almost all plastic items used day-to-day. And, if you haven’t already guessed from their lingering litter on beaches, they are a significant source of microplastic pollution.
In Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) new report, ‘Stemming the tide: putting an end to plastic pellet pollution’, we deep-dive into plastic pellets’ impact on the environment and biodiversity, exploring how and when they enter our oceans and the limited action being taken to prevent this damaging source of pollution.
Crucially, the report highlights that plastic pellet pollution is entirely preventable and outlines a series of evidence-based recommendations for immediate measures and regulations that can be put in place to help curb the issue.
By weight, plastic pellets are estimated to be the second largest direct source of microplastic marine pollution; it is estimated that billions of individual pellets enter the ocean every year. This is due to both small and large-scale leakages and spillages occurring on land and sea during all stages of the supply chain – especially while they are in transit.
Because the pellets are so small, they can easily escape if not stored and handled properly and this results in smaller but chronic losses. Acute losses can also occur, however, for example, in May 2021, the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl caught fire and approximately 84 billion pellets were spilled off the ship into the Indian ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka. This was an acute, incredibly damaging, incident.
Not only are plastic pellets becoming an eye-sore on beaches around the world, they are inherently dangerous to wildlife. Often mistaken for food by marine life, pellets are regularly eaten or ingested, filling the stomachs of fish and animals and leading to starvation.
Worse yet, already hazardous due to the toxic additives they contain, plastic pellets act like a sponge, adsorbing and accumulating bacteria and persistent environmental pollutants that are present in sea water. When pellets come into contact with, or are eaten by, marine animals, therefore, the toxins, chemicals and bacteria can potentially be transferred to the animal – effectively acting as a poisoned pill for marine life.
Plastic pellets on a beach in Norfolk, January 2019. Credit: Ed Marshall
Plastic pellet pollution is hitting crisis levels – having a severe impact on wildlife – but there’s a number of immediate actions that can be taken to turn the tide on this burgeoning pollution issue.
Amongst the recommendations outlined in our report is a call for the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is responsible for regulating global shipping, to classify plastic pellets as marine pollutants, which would mean that they are immediately subject much stricter handling rules when shipped at sea.
Other recommendations range from the use of appropriate packaging from the point of production to the point of delivery, to improving disaster response in the event of major spillages.
It is clear that voluntary action alone is insufficient to level the playing field and drive the systemic change needed to eliminate this form of pollution, both on land and at sea. We need an urgent move towards a regulatory approach
Tanya Cox, Senior Technical Specialist, Marine Plastics, FFI, explains: “There is a growing body of evidence documenting the sheer scale of plastic pellet pollution, the harm it causes to marine life and its impacts on ecosystems and human livelihoods. But, attempts to prevent pellet loss and minimise its impact have, to-date, been limited, despite the issue being entirely preventable.
“Current pellet loss prevention measures are voluntary in nature and mainly focus on land-based sources of pollution, however there is a critical need for complementary measures that will reduce the risk of pellets being lost during transport at sea as well.
“While the early adopters of voluntary, preventative action should be applauded for their efforts, as our report outlines, it is clear that voluntary action alone is insufficient to level the playing field and drive the systemic change needed to eliminate this form of pollution, both on land and at sea. We need an urgent move towards a regulatory approach, with mandatory requirements that are supported by rigorous standards and certification schemes.”
A summary of FFI’s recommended measures to, ultimately, achieve zero plastic pellet loss are outlined in the report’s executive summary and are explained in further detail in the full report.
Download ‘Stemming the tide: putting an end to plastic pellet pollution’.
Download the executive summary.