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Why are plastic pellets dangerous for the environment?

“Plastic resin pellets” are the raw material of the plastic industry.

Packaged and shipped by the billions around the world, these lentil-sized pellets of plastic are then melted down and used as building blocks for a wide range of items used in our daily lives – from computers to cars and more. by clothes and bottles.

Although the first sighting of these pellets on beaches was only reported in 1970, they have since been found on every continent except Antarctica.

Voices are being raised today asking that this type of pollution be taken much more seriously, because their size and persistence make them virtually impossible to eliminate, once in the environment.

environmental devastation

Pellets are lost at each stage of their handling. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, each year, 230,000 tonnes of this waste end up in our oceans and in the European Union alone 23 billion of these little marbles end up in the environment every day. They make their way through storm drains, into rivers and streams, and eventually reach our oceans. The pellets are then scattered by the wind and sea currents to the four corners of our planet, but it is practically impossible to clean them due to their size.

These devastate the environment and marine life but, although they are one of the main sources of pollution of our oceans, they are often neglected.

They tend to only make headlines when large container spills are lost at sea during transit.

A social and environmental tragedy

One such incident happened in early 2021, in the pristine waters off the coast of Sri Lanka.

The freighter X-Press Pearl caught fire as it carried 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, spilling nearly 1,700 tonnes of pellets and 9,700 tonnes of other plastics and toxic pollutants. With strandings on hundreds of kilometers of coastline and accumulation on beaches up to two meters high, this is the worst marine environmental disaster in the country’s history, and the largest plastic pellet pollution event ever seen in history.

The resulting pollution has had a considerable economic, social and environmental impact. More than 20,000 fishermen have been unable to work in the area, thus losing their income, and the marine habitats are now in ruins.

There are still large quantities of plastic pellets and hidden burnt microplastics in water and sand, especially along the coastline between Colombo and Negombo“, explains Hemantha Withanage, executive director of the Center for Environmental Justicein Sri Lanka.

These substances degrade slowly and will therefore be present for the next 500 to 1000 years. They will not only affect marine life and human health, but also tourism and local people’s incomes, for years to come..”

A threat to marine life and humans

Often mistaken for fish eggs, the pellets are ingested by seabirds and fish, causing malnutrition and starvation.

The high concentrations of environmental pollutants they absorb, in addition to the chemicals used in their production, are also found in sea creatures. Not only these harmful substances then accumulate in the food chainbut they can also enter our bodies, through the fish and seafood we eat, and cause a whole host of problems.

Last year, for the first time, microplastics were found in human organs – with particular glaring concerning the health of infants.

Spills can impact ecosystems and even alter some of their characteristics, such as the temperature and permeability of a beach’s sand, which in turn affects animals such as brooding endangered sea turtles. their eggs in this habitat.

What about climate threats?

We know that the fossil fuel and plastics industries are deeply linked.

Pellets, along with other plastics, are made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels, and emit greenhouse gases at every stage of their life cycle, including after they die.

According to one study carried out in 2019 by the Center for International Environmental Law, by 2030, annual global plastic emissions could reach the equivalent of nearly 300 coal-fired power plants.

Have attempts been made to reduce spills?

Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) is an international plastics industry initiative to reduce the loss of these granules to the environment. Companies that are part of this program receive guidelines to help them prevent pellet loss at their sites. Although the SCO is a good starting point, membership is voluntary and there are no checks to ensure promises are kept.

Furthermore, this deal does not represent the entire plastics supply chain globally and, in Europe, only a small percentage of the 55,000 companies involved in the supply chain have signed it so far. .

Fidra is an environmental charity working to reduce plastic waste and chemical pollution. Through his “Great Global Pellet Hunt“, she seeks to better understand the density and distribution of these. This year, these small plastic balls were found in 91% of participating countries.

This year, more than 900 people took part in pellet hunts on beaches and waterways around the world“, explains Heather McFarlane, project manager at Fidra.

“This research not only gives us pollution data, it also shows that people care about this ongoing plastic problem and want industry and governments to take more action to address it.”

Further measures are needed

30 years after Operation Clean Sweep, there is no obligation on the part of the plastics industry to ensure good operational practices, although there is now growing recognition of the urgency of preventing pellets from escape into the wild.

Fidra calls for cooperation within the supply chain itself. This would mean ensuring that all companies that handle plastic pellets – from petrochemical producers who create billions of pellets per hour, to those who transport them around the world, to micro-enterprises who buy bags of pellets to make products – implement good practice measures.

Although plastics of marine origin represent approximately 20% of plastic pollution and that pellet spills have been recorded off the coast of hong kongof the’South Africa and some North Sea over the past decade, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations body responsible for regulating global shipping, has repeatedly delayed debate on the issue of these plastic pellets.

Following the devastating spill of pellets, the Sri Lankan government therefore asked the IMO to classify these small pieces of plastic as hazardous substances, in order to avoid future spills at sea.

These calls are supported by the Center for Environmental Justice of Sri Lanka, the NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and other members of the Clean Shipping Coalition.

Classifying pellets as hazardous substances would allow preventative measures such as separate storage, clear labelling, best handling practices and emergency response protocolsβ€œ, explains Tom Gammage, head of the oceanographic campaign at the EIA.

There are currently no legal restrictions for a substance or good being transported at sea if it is not listed in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) code, and for this it must be classified as dangerous“.

We already know that microplastics such as pellets bioaccumulate, persist for hundreds of years in the environment, and can cause significant toxicity to living organisms. There is more than enough evidence to justify putting these plastics on the IMDG list.β€œ, he adds.

But rich countries prefer not to get involved…

At the end of 2021, during the meeting of the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee in London, the EIA presented a petition signed by 90,000 people, calling for the pellets to be classified as hazardous materials, but there was disbelief when no time was spent discussing the issues associated with these tiny plastics.

Hemantha Withanage is disappointed with this result. “We are very unhappy with the attitude of the IMO“, he says.

The government of Sri Lanka was given just two minutes to voice its concerns and demands, and to ask the IMO about its plans to deal with future maritime disasters and the proposal to declare the pellets a hazardous substance, before be suddenly cut off”.

Six people, including myself, were on the list to speak, but we did not do so because no time was allocated to us. It gives me the feeling that while a small nation like Sri Lanka is suffering from a great disaster, the rich industrial nations prefer not to get involvedβ€œ, he concludes.

Further discussions are expected to take place in March or April next year. Until then, the campaign to classify pellets as dangerous continues.

Article translated from English

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