Plastic pellets: new report out exposes alarming impacts across Europe


Industrial plastic pellets, also known as pellets or mermaid tears, are small spheres used as raw material in the manufacturing of almost all plastic items. Due to their small size (usually less than 5 mm) and bad practices, pellets are often "lost" at all stages of the plastic production and distribution chain (production, transport, recycling...).   

A colossal form of pollution with major impacts   

According to estimates in a report commissioned by the European Commission in 2018, around 160,000 tonnes of plastic pellets are "lost" by the industry each year in the EU. Globally, more than 250,000 tonnes of plastic granules end up in aquatic environments each year. Plastic pellet pollution is thus the second most important source of (so-called primary) microplastic pollution. 

Once dumped into nature, pellets remain in the environment for hundreds of years, causing irreversible damage to biodiversity and marine and terrestrial life and habitats. Pellets can be swallowed by animals, which mistake them for fish eggs, clogging their stomachs and often causing their death. They break up and gradually enter the food chain, reaching the fish we eat, posing a potential risk to human health.   

In addition, pellets - like all other plastics - act as "sponges" for toxic products and bacteria present in the marine environment that add to the already harmful additives contained in the pellets, further contributing to their toxicity.

European tour: edifying conclusions

The report published by Surfrider Europe, on behalf of the Rethink Plastic alliance, highlights five recent cases of industrial plastic pellet pollution in different European countries: a spill in Northern France, an accident in the North Sea (impacting Norway, Sweden and Denmark), and ongoing pollution from pellet production and processing plants in Tarragona (Spain), Antwerp (Belgium) and Rotterdam (Netherlands).

The report highlights alarming, continuous and structural pollution ongoing in the vicinity of major plastics production and processing sites in Europe (Antwerp, Tarragona and Rotterdam). One of the cases exposed in the report - in Tarragona, Spain - is one of the battles the association leads as part of its Coastal Defenders programme. Everywhere, the consequences are catastrophic. In most cases, pollution reaches Natura 2000 protected areas and endangers fragile ecosystems. The numerous and costly clean-ups carried out are at best incomplete, at worst ineffective, with pellets dispersing rapidly with the wind or sea currents and new pellets reappearing sometime later. In very few cases are the polluters known or assume their responsibilities. In most cases, those responsible are not identified, and those involved in the plastic production and processing chain often blame each other, without anyone taking responsibility for the pollution.

© Inka Reichert - Pollution in Tarragona, Spain 

What can be done?

For the past 30 years, some industry players have been trying to tackle the problem by promoting good practices through an initiative called "Operation Clean Sweep". The initiative is voluntary and non-binding, and has proven to be unable to act effectively, in the light of the case studies exposed in the report.   

A growing number of citizens are mobilising in the face of this dramatic pollution: in Antwerp, for example, associations are doing everything possible to prevent the construction of new plants that will fuel additional pellet production.  

The situation is very worrying as this pollution comes on top of the 12 million tonnes of plastic dumped into the ocean every year, while plastic production is set to quadruple by 2050

Given the extent of the pollution and the irreversible damage it generates, Surfrider Europe and its partners call on the European institutions to urgently adopt legal measures to regulate the activities of the plastic chain and to ensure that good practices are put in place by the entire chain in order to limit and stop pellet pollution.  

Read the report

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