28th Feb 2024

EU fears as microplastics spill hits French/Spanish coastlines

  • These tiny round plastic pellets are called nurdles, and they make up the second-largest source of ocean microplastics, after tyre dust (Photo: Greenpeace)
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As the coastline of Galicia in northern Spain wakes up to another day with hundreds of volunteers cleaning microplastics from the beach, the EU has sounded the alarm about the impacts of the plastic pellets on the environment and human health.

The ecological disaster in Galicia resulted from a drama that took place last month off the Portuguese coast, but is now also extending to France.

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In December, a cargo ship lost a container filled with 25kg sacks of these tiny microplastics, which have now washed up on the coasts of Galicia. But many of them remain in the sea — raising concerns among policy-makers and environmental campaigners.

These tiny round plastic pellets, known as nurdles, are the second-largest contributor to ocean microplastics, after tyre particles (a mixture of tyre fragments, including synthetic rubbers, fillers and softeners and road surface particles).

The EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, was the first to raise the alarm this week, when he warned that the 25 tonnes of plastic pellets spilled off the Galician coast threatens the marine environment and economic activities such as fishing.

His remarks were followed by a debate in the European Parliament environment committee about EU rules on pellet losses — where MEP also expressed concerns about the impact of the recent spill.

"The raw materials used to produce these pellets are a growing risk," Portuguese socialist MEP João Albuquerque, who is leading the parliament work on this file, said during the committee debate on Thursday (11 January).

Binding measures, not voluntary measures, are crucial to limit the release of pellets, he said, adding that exemptions should be granted only to the smallest businesses. "We need awareness … [and] monetary penalties to be applied."

He insisted that the commission's proposal to monitor registered producers of plastic pellet should be compulsory, not voluntary, and that rules should enter into force in just three years.

"Any clean-up operation is going to be very limited. This is why we have to pay so much attention to prevention and reducing risk factors in production, manufacturing and transport," said the MEP.

Not a new problem

While businesses have found solutions to try to reduce pellet leakages, this has not been enough to tackle this "major source of pollution," French liberal MEP Catherine Chabaud said. "It's not a new problem, it was identified already in the 1970s."

The draft report setting out the parliament position has expanded the scope of EU rules to SMEs and small companies. It has also expanded the definition of pellets to include plastic flakes and powders, and it directly covers economic operators in maritime transport.

The Galician case, and many other cases which do not garner the same media attention, reflect the need to include maritime transport in the scope of EU rules, according to Green German MEP Ska Keller.

Keller also pointed out the dimension of the problem. The recent catastrophe in Galicia accounts for just one percent of all the plastic pallet losses that we have a year, she said. "Having zero losses is what we need to achieve".

The extended scope and increased ambition in the parliament's position have been backed by liberals, socialists and greens MEPs in the environmental committee — but the centre-right European People's Party also highlighted potential negative consequences for the competitiveness of small and medium enterprises.

Likewise, the EU Commission also believes that subjecting SMEs and micro-enterprises to certification instead of self-declaration would pose an unfair administrative burden on them.

Meanwhile, Spanish MEPs from the S&D and The Left used the opportunity to blame the regional government in Galicia — led by the centre-right Partido Popular (People's Party) — for not managing the problem.

Hundreds of volunteers have been cleaning microplastics pellets on the beach for weeks (Photo: Greenpeace)

Bitter memories

Meanwhile, the scene of locals cleaning the beaches with household items has triggered bitter memories of the oil spill Galicia suffered in 2002, which substantially damaged fishing and tourism in the region.

Environmental campaigners at Greenpeace have asked the local authorities for short, medium and long-term environmental impact studies to evaluate the effects of the spill.

"This was not done with a much more catastrophic event, the [2002] Prestige spill. We hope the same mistake is not repeated," Manoel Santos, a Greenpeace delegate in Galicia, told EUobserver.

In the short term, marine organisms, from crustaceans to molluscs, fish, birds and even mammals will likely mistake pellets for food, which will cause them stomach problems and even death, Santos said.

"The dimension of this impact will depend on the concentration that the spill reaches in certain areas, which is still an unknown since only a minimal part has reached the coast," he also said.

In the medium and long term, pellets actually become increasingly dangerous.

Pellets, Santos said, can act like sponges that accumulate toxic substances, turning them into toxic mini-bombs for marine organisms.

He also said that the impact on sectors such as fishing or shellfish harvesting remains to be seen. Given its wide dispersion, it is unlikely to be detrimental, at least to a significant degree, he said.

One year ago, hundreds of thousands of these pellets washed up across beaches in France and Spain.

EU rules for pallet losses were proposed by the commission in October 2023. MEPs and EU member states are finalising their positions to start inter-institutional negotiations to finalise the file before the elections.

Dive into a two-part investigation recently published by EUobserver shedding light on the problem of pellets — a must-read for all those seeking a deeper understanding of this environmental challenge


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