A recent spill of plastic pellets on the Spanish coast has highlighted the need for regulation at the EU level, with environmental groups pushing for a zero-tolerance approach to plastic pollution.
Spanish pellet spill puts EU law on microplastic pollution in the spotlight

Since mid-December, dozens of sacks filled with plastic ‘nurdles’ have been found on the beaches around the Rías Baixas, says Noia Limpa, a Galician NGO dedicated to coastal protection.

These tiny pellets, typically less than five millimetres, are used as raw material in the manufacturing of plastic products and were identified as coming from a container ship called the Toconao, operated by Danish company Maersk.

On 8 December, six containers reportedly fell off the ship near the coast of Portugal, with one of them containing at least 26,000 kg of nurdles.

Maersk spokesman Rainer Horn said the shipping company regretted the incident and would investigate the cause of the disaster. The Spanish Public Prosecutor’s Office has also launched an investigation.

“The contamination of the oceans and ecosystems with plastics is one of the biggest problems faced by humanity,” said Spain’s minister for the environment, Teresa Ribera. “The spilling of such an important quantity of plastics requires close oversight to determine if the transport company and shipping company exercised the proper precautions.”

2002 oil spill trauma

This ecological disaster brought back memories of 2002 when Galicia was hit by a major oil slick caused by the sinking of the Prestige tanker, spilling 60,000 tonnes of fuel oil onto the coast.

Environmental associations, volunteers and workers organised themselves to clean up the affected beaches and coastlines.

Among them, the Spanish environmental group Ecologistas en Acción sued the shipping company that owns the Liberian-flagged container ship Toconao and its captain.

The NGO has asked the court to require the company responsible to provide a guarantee of at least €10 million to cover the restoration costs.

“These little plastic balls pose an environmental problem because fish mistake them for eggs and eat them. They enter the food chain […] and end up on our tables,” said Cristobal López, a spokesman for Ecologistas en Acción, who spoke to the Associated Press from a beach in Galicia.

Pellets are non-biodegradable; animals can ingest them, and they contribute to plastic pollution in the food chain, including for humans.

Draft EU regulation on microplastics

Natacha Tullis from the Pew Charitable Trusts says pellet spills are an insidious yet avoidable source of plastic pollution. Each day, as many as 20 truckloads of pellets are lost to the environment in Europe, she estimates.

“Any spill – no matter how big or small – can have long-term impacts on the environment and communities as these particles seep into the soil, waterways, and the ocean,” she told Euractiv.

But despite voluntary industry initiatives like ‘Operation Clean Sweep’, the loss of pellets into the environment continues, Tullis said, pointing out that these measures are only applied by less than 5% of the European plastics industry.

In October, the European Commission tabled a new regulation to prevent microplastic pollution, saying measures applied across the plastic supply chain would reduce pellet losses by 54% to 74%.

Under the draft regulation, operators are requested to act in the following order of priority: prevention to avoid any spillage of pellets; containment of spilt granulates to ensure they do not pollute the environment; and clean-up after a spillage or loss event.

Pew believes this is “a good starting point”, as are the changes proposed by the rapporteur, MEP Joao Albuquerque, to include maritime transport in the regulation.

However, Tullis recommends that all operators and carriers undergo an independent certification and annual surveillance audit, saying the Commission proposal “still offers too much room for spills and loss for operators handling less than 1,000 tonnes of pellets a year.”

Pew also urges policymakers “to further lower the 250 tonnes threshold proposed by the rapporteur”.

Meanwhile, the European plastics industry says it supports the objectives of the new regulation.

“The loss of plastics pellets in our ecosystems is unacceptable and the need to mitigate unintentional pellet loss is a priority issue for the industry,” said Virginia Janssens, managing director of Plastics Europe, a trade association.

Source: euractiv.com


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