25 June 2019

Tackling microplastic pollution at its source: the example of pellets

With up to 167 000 tonnes estimated to leak into the environment in Europe every year, plastic pellets are the second largest source of primary microplastic pollution (after tyre abrasion and before microfibers from textile).

Exclusively caused by economic operators in the plastic supply chain – such as plastic producers, transporters, converters or recyclers – plastic pellet pollution is particularly harmful for the marine biodiversity. Despite Operation Clean Sweep, the first voluntary agreement on preventing pellet loss being almost 30 years old, pellets still leak into the environment largely unnoticed.

Plastic pellets – also called nurdles or beads – are similar in shape and size to lentils (2-5 mm diameter). Produced by polymeric manufacturers and recycling facilities, they are then transported to facilities which will melt and mold them into the shape of the final plastic product.

Contrary to all the other microplastic pollution sources which are more diffuse, pellet loss is solely caused by actors in the plastic value chain. As such, it could therefore seem easy to tackle. However, despite concerns on plastic pellet pollution raised since the early 70’s , pellets still leak into the environment.

Pellets pose major risks to the environment because:

  • they attract Persistent Organic Pollutants, which are toxic chemicals in particularly high quantities: up to 107 times higher in plastic pellets than in sea water.
  • due to their size shape which make them look like fish eggs, marine animals including fish and birds tend mistake pellets for food. Pellets together with the absorbed toxic substances therefore enter the food chain, increasing the risk of biodiversity loss and human health issues. To date, 180 animal species have been found to ingested plastic (this figure is not available for pellets only).

There is a need for more corporate transparency with regard to pellet loss. A framework should be developed, that considers all the actors which can leak pellets into the environment, impose pellet loss prevention measures at their sites or where their activity takes place, and share this information with the clients downstream in the chain (sometimes called “chain of custody”). This way only would it be possible for clients in the chain (such as retailers, brands) to receive more complete information on pellet littering in their chain and put pressure on their suppliers upstream.

Such framework is what the Scottish Government has started working on, together with a multi-stakeholder group including environmental NGOs including ECOS, companies & industry associations, standardisers and national bodies and supported by the consultancy Eunomia. As part of this work, ECOS highlighted the importance of plastic pellet loss prevention measures to be audited on site, and by an independent third party.

With the fight against plastic pollution being a high political priority, ECOS calls for harder regulation on preventing plastic pellet leakage.

ECOS is co-funded by the European Commission and EFTA

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