28th Feb 2024


Nurdle pollution: old problem, same legislative challenges

  • Nurdles are microplastics from the start due to their diminutive size, something also known as primary microplastics (Photo: Davide Mancini)
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This is the second chapter of the investigation into plastic pellet pollution. Building on the insights presented in part one, this segment explores the limited efforts made to address the issue and the regulatory gap that prevents holding companies accountable.

Nurdle pollution is not a recent occurrence: the earliest reported sightings of plastic pellets on beaches date back to the early 1970s. Yet no specific legislation has been introduced since then, and efforts to mitigate spills have largely relied on voluntary initiatives.

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  • A pellet handling facility in the port of Antwerp (Photo: Davide Mancini)

One such is Operation Clean Sweep (OCS). Under this program, firms commit to a set of guidelines and best practices to prevent pellet leakage, including improving storage, handling, and transportation, as well as implementing spill-response protocols. According to its website, the aim is to achieve zero pellet loss.

First established in the early 1990s in the United States, OCS has garnered support from various plastic trade groups globally and has been operational in Europe since 2015.

However, the scheme remains voluntary at present, and its roll-out differs significantly between trade associations. Signatory companies are also not subject to external checks to ensure they are fulfilling their commitments, and they are not obligated to report nurdle spills. Importantly, there are no penalties for those who commit but do fail to act.

"There are a lot of good practices within the framework, but the issue is that they're voluntary when they should be mandatory," said Madeline Berg, a marine plastics project manager at Fidra, a Scottish environmental charity, adding that the lack of external check and reporting makes evaluating the program's effectiveness nearly impossible.

"We've had this initiative running for over 30 years with no public disclosure, not a single piece of public data released," she lamented. "How can we tell if it's making an impact without clear metrics and transparency from companies?"

Criticism extends to the program's limited reach; in Europe, around 60,000 companies deal with pellets at some stage of the supply chain, but only about 1,800 have joined the OCS charter so far, according to PlasticsEurope, the umbrella association of European plastic manufacturers.

Responding to calls for improvement, an upgraded version of the scheme was introduced earlier this year. Called the European OCS certification scheme, it mandates participating companies to undergo regular audits by approved certification bodies. Those meeting the criteria are listed on a public registry.

PlasticsEurope said in an emailed statement that the enhanced program ensures effective implementation and enhances overall credibility through third-party audits.

Berg acknowledges the positive stride but believes the revised requirements, with audits scheduled every three years, still fall short of ensuring thorough and effective prevention. She also said there are aspects needing clarification, including criteria for selecting certification bodies and compliance protocols.

In its statement, PlasticsEurope clarified that scheme owners choose certification bodies, and auditors must have four years of relevant experience. Auditable requirements are developed by an internal committee of technical experts across the plastics supply chain.

No one's fault

Campaigners argue that preventing plastic pellets from escaping into the landscape would involve several deceptively simple precautionary measures.

Companies can, for instance, place containers that catch nurdles that fall during loading and unloading, install screens on storm drains to catch beads that wash away, or use sturdier materials for packing bags. Workers can also double-check valves on rail cars to make sure they're fully tightened and vacuum up nurdles that spill onto factory floors.

"Pellets really are the low-hanging fruit of microplastic pollution," said Gammage, the ocean plastic pollution campaigner with EIA in London. "It's literally just a matter of people being careful when they handle them."

But costing less than €1 per kilo, plastic pellets are pretty much worthless, making it cheaper for companies to leave them on the ground after a spill than to clean them up.

There are also no repercussions for polluters, given the challenges of tracing the nurdles back to their origin and tracking down offenders. (To date, there is no database of manufacturers who make plastic pellets and where they ship available to the public.)

Even so, researchers can generally tell if nurdles are from a new spill. Resin, the core ingredient of plastic, starts going yellow under the sun, so the dark, grimy pellets are usually older than the white ones. This can help determine whether a new spill has occurred or whether nurdles that have been out in the ocean for a while are simply washing up on shore.

Marta Sugrañes, an ocean scientist who works as a scientific coordinator for Good Karma Projects, an environmental non-profit in Tarragona, regularly collects samples from two beaches near the town's petrochemical hub, the largest in southern Europe. The samples are then taken to Barcelona, where they undergo a series of tests to determine their origin.

"We have evidence to prove that these pellets come from streams near the industrial complex here in Tarragona," said Sugrañes. "We can establish a link between rainfall and the streams that carry these pellets down onto the beach."

But even when nurdles can be traced to a specific spill, manufacturer, or location, there is seemingly little to no legal framework for accountability.

Global treaties designed to regulate ocean space use and tackle plastic pollution, like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, are typically non-binding and often have unclear requirements. National and state laws, where they exist, frequently come with significant shortcomings and are hardly rigorously enforced.

Notably, nurdles are not deemed hazardous under the International Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code, a set of guidelines and rules regulating the maritime transport of dangerous goods in packaged form developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN agency that governs global shipping.

This oversight is particularly troubling given that the environmental threat posed by nurdles has been known for three decades, as documented in a 1993 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Pressure is mounting for that to change. Two years ago, Sri Lanka, backed by Norway and other co-sponsors, submitted a proposal to the IMO asking that nurdles transported in container ships be listed as a harmful substance on par with explosives, flammable liquids, and other dangerous materials.

The plea came after the cargo ship X-Press Pearl spilled 1,700 tonnes of plastic pellets off the western coast of Sri Lanka following a fire on board, causing nurdles to accumulate along hundreds of miles of coastline up to two metres high. The incident is considered the single largest nurdle pollution event the world has seen.

The reclassification would prompt significant improvements in the way that pellets are handled, making them subject to strict conditions for shipping, said Lucie Padovani, marine litter lobbying officer at Surfrider Foundation Europe in Brussels.

"They must be stored below deck, in more robust packaging with clear labelling," she explained. "That would greatly reduce the risk of chronic losses and acute disaster spills."

The overhaul would additionally subject nurdles to disaster-response protocols, potentially preventing severe environmental impacts if implemented during emergency situations, added Padovani.

Predictably, the proposal has encountered resistance from the industry. The European Chemistry Industry Council (CEFIC), a Brussels-based trade group that holds an observer seat at IMO discussions, asserted that mandatory packaging regulations should not be implemented, arguing that the principal cause of nurdle spills is not the packaging within the container but rather the loss of containers, fires, or other accidents.

CEFIC also argued that the current packaging is already enough, proposing continued plastics industry self-regulation through Operation Clean Sweep.

The proposal has now been deferred to the IMO's Pollution, Prevention, and Response (PRR) Sub-Committee. A decision will not be taken at least until PRR's next meeting, taking place in 2024.

Pellet pollution in the forest near the municipality of Ecaussinnes in Belgium (Photo: Davide Mancini)

EU push

A draft law addressing plastic pellet pollution is also being discussed in Europe. Proposed by the European Commission (EC), this long overdue legislation is a crucial element of the bloc's plan to cut microplastic pollution by 30 percent by 2030.

Within the proposed framework, operators handling pellets in the EU are required to adopt best practices tailored to the scale of their installation or transport activities. Additionally, companies must conduct risk assessments to ensure proper measures are in place to avoid spillage and obtain a compliance certificate from an independent third party.

The proposal, whose ultimate goal is to reduce plastic pellet pollution by 74 percent by the decade's end, is undergoing discussions with the European Parliament and the Council. It is expected to transition into law once consensus is reached among EU lawmakers and member states, likely after the European elections next June.

The bill has faced a lukewarm reception from environmental and advocacy groups.

Rethink Plastic, a coalition of environmental NGOs, lauded certain aspects such as mandatory certification and penalty measures for previously unchecked pollution, but rebuked the proposal as "unambitious," citing concerns over perceived loopholes and exemptions for small companies handling less than 5 tons per year.

Padovani from Surfrider Foundation Europe echoed the sentiment, stating: "I think regulators eventually gave in to industry pressure, and we ended up with a lacklustre law that falls short of the quick and ambitious approach needed to combat this issue effectively."

In an emailed statement, a commission spokesperson noted that the proposal sets out minimum requirements for all operators, and the introduction of a five-ton threshold is designed to ease the administrative burden on smaller enterprises when implementing the proposed improvements.

Ultimately, Padovani contended that putting an end to pellet loss requires a radical overhaul across the supply chain, one that demands stringent regulations, corporate transparency, and severe consequences for non-compliance.

"Half-measures won't cut it," she stated. "We need a resolute, uncompromising approach to make nurdle pollution a thing of the past."

The production of this investigation is supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute IPI, the European Journalism Centre EJC and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.

Author bio

Marcello Rossi is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental and climate change topics. Davide Mancini is a freelance journalist and videomaker, based in Spain.


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