Plastic pellets have been found polluting the environment near Danish companies that manufacture plastic products, including some that are signed up to Operation Clean Sweep, an industry initiative committed to achieving zero pellet loss.

These pellets (also known as nurdles) are the raw material used to create virtually every plastic item in existence. About the size of a lentil and often brightly coloured, these pellets are a common sight on many beaches; previous research has estimated that billions of them end up in our oceans every year as a result of poor handling and transport practices.

The latest findings from Denmark come from a report, commissioned by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and produced by NGO Plastic Change, which was expected to showcase best practice in a country with no pellet producers.

Instead, random samples taken near companies manufacturing a range of plastic products – from children’s toys to industrial pipes – showed the local environment polluted with pellets. This was particularly disappointing given that some of the companies implicated are signed up to Operation Clean Sweep, an industry scheme through which companies commit to zero pellet loss.

Surprising findings from new microplastics study in Denmark

Pellets are the raw material used to create virtually every plastic item in existence. Credit: Olivia Bailey/FFI

“As there are no plastic pellet producers in Denmark we thought it could present a great case study of a country with zero pellet loss. How wrong we were. These results show that pellets are being released into the environment from companies across the supply chain, and current voluntary efforts by industry to prevent this are not working,” said Elisabeth Whitebread, Marine Plastics Programme Manager at FFI. “We are calling for the introduction of a supply chain approach to tackling pellet loss that addresses behaviour by all those who manufacture, handle, or transport pellets. Not only would this dramatically cut marine plastic pollution, it could also benefit companies by improving production efficiency.”

Pellets are the second-largest direct source of microplastic pollution to the ocean by weight. When handled poorly, they can escape during loading and unloading and transport, and are then carried out with wind or rainwater from factories into the environment. Like other microplastics in the ocean, these pellets attract toxic chemicals from the surrounding water and are readily eaten by a broad range of species, some of which may confuse pellets for fish eggs, allowing plastic to enter the marine food chain. Consequences of eating pellets include lower reproductive success, toxicity from chemicals, and reduced feeding (and therefore reduced energy and growth).

FFI wants to see the introduction of a supply chain approach that would require adherence to best practice measures, reinforced by inspections, annual compliance audits, and the sharing of transparent performance reports, to enable companies to purchase plastic materials that have been made responsibly.

Henrik Beha Pedersen founder of Plastic Change said, “We are very surprised to learn that many companies apparently do not control their raw materials, especially now with the massive focus on plastic pollution. Plastic manufacturers often put the blame on consumers who cannot hit the trash bin. But this shows that industry should first sweep for its own door.

“We now expect the industry and its members to look inward and take their share of responsibility. We all have to make sure that plastic does not end up in the ocean – citizens and politicians as well as the industry.”