Plastic pollution: Shipping sector urged to crack down on nurdle spills

The call to action comes from NGO Flora and Fauna International (FFI), which has this week published a new report tracking the scale of pellet pollution and making recommendations for tackling the issue.

According to their report, 11.5 trillion nurdles – lentil-sized pieces of plastic – end up in oceans every year. Nurdles are used to make a majority of the world’s plastic products; manufacturers melt them down and form them into packaging and products.

Nurdle spills are often the result of poor packaging, mishandling or shipping accidents and disasters. For example, the X-Press Pearl cargo ship caught fire and sank in 2021, leading to the spillage of 1,600 tonnes of nurdles. Sri Lankan communities have been dealing with the resulting microplastic pollution on their beaches ever since. Other communities affected by similar disasters include New Orleans, Durban, Cape Town and Tairua Beach in New Zealand.

In the introduction to the FFI report, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Oceans, Peter Thompson, wrote: “We are still in the process of discovering the degree of damage being done by microplastic pollution to the ocean and associated ecosystems, not forgetting the effects of these on our own well-being.

“But what we have learnt thus far is cause for great alarm. Plastic pellets are inherently toxic as a result of the additives they contain, and because they adsorb persistent background toxic chemicals present in the marine environment. They are entering the marine food chain, a large element of which involves ingestion by humans.”

IMO interventions

The report recommends several interventions that could be taken by policymakers, regulators and the private sector to reduce pellet pollution. It notes that efforts have been made for some three decades to address pellet losses on land, meaning that spills during manufacturing, storage and conversion are decreasing.

Most recommendations are, therefore, focused on losses in marine environments. These losses are often “acute” – while slow, low-level leaks are common on land, nurdle pollution at sea is often caused by the loss of large batches of nurdles.

The headline recommendation is that the IMO – which is a UN Body – classifies nurdles as marine pollutants. This would force cargo shipping operators to meet stricter requirements on handling and disclosures. The IMO should also, FFI argues, press states signed up to its rules on preventing pollution from shops to ratify and implement aligned legislation.

Additionally, the IMO is urged in the report to ensure that its forthcoming International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea includes pellets.

“Given that the IMO’s role includes preventing pollution from ships there is a clear need for the different stakeholders represented at the IMO to act to prevent further catastrophic pellet pollution incidents,” the report states,

The report also states that the UN itself has a role to introduce new legal requirements on companies to provide credible verification that they are acting to prevent pellet loss. Such requirements should also cover improved labelling, communication and supply chain tracking.

Nations could also collaborate to impose legal limits on the volume of loose pellets transported in shipping containers and a legal minimum requirement for maintaining containers used to house pellets.

FFI emphasises the role of investors, insurers, brands and retailers of implementing strong requirements in the absence of international regulation – and in pushing for its introduction.

“While the early advocates for tackling pellet loss and adopters of voluntary methods should be applauded for their efforts, it is clear that voluntary methods alone are insufficient to level the playing field and drive the systemic change needed to stop this form of pollution, both on land and at sea,” the report states.

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