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States and regulators such as the IMO must put an end to plastic pellet pollution

Plastic pellets, often known as ‘nurdles’, are small, lentil-sized pieces of plastic melted together to manufacture almost all plastic items. From plastic bottles to mobile phones, many common household products are made from plastic pellets.

Plastic pellets are handled and moved in global supply chains, but poor practices result in pellets spilling on land and at sea in staggering numbers, especially while in transit on ships. It is estimated that billions of individual pellets enter the ocean every year, due to routine leaks caused by weak packaging and careless handling, and shipping disasters in which entire containers of pellets are lost into the sea, such as the infamous X-Press Pearl incident.

Once in the ocean, plastic pellets are almost impossible to contain and have a devastating impact on marine species and habitats. One of the biggest threats they pose is that marine wildlife often mistake pellets for food, filling their stomachs and leading to starvation. As well as causing harm to nature, plastic pellet pollution negatively affects people. Pellets spilled in the ocean eventually wash up on coastlines, smothering sensitive habitats, wreaking havoc on fishing communities in the wake of catastrophic spills and causing an eye sore.

The consequences of plastic pellet pollution are severe, but the problem is entirely preventable. The industry knows what measures need to be taken, but unfortunately intervention to date has been inadequate, with just a small proportion of the industry voluntarily tackling some land-based sources of this pervasive pollutant.

Voluntary action alone is not enough to level the playing field for shipping and manufacturing players, nor is it enough to drive the systemic change needed to eliminate plastic pellet pollution. At Fauna & Flora, we are calling for a more robust, regulatory approach from industry, governments and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to truly put a halt to plastic pellet loss at sea. More than 13,000 members of the public have already joined the call, urging the IMO to act quickly and decisively on plastic pellet pollution, through our recent petition.

We know there are various routes that IMO members could take to stop plastic pellet pollution. Fundamentally, we know that if IMO members were to vote to legally classify pellets as marine pollutants, this would immediately trigger significant improvements in the way pellets are packaged, labelled, stowed and transported around the world.

Preventing large-scale shipping disasters is a much bigger challenge, but the impact of future, acute pollution events involving pellets could be minimised with greater pollution preparedness, including standardised disaster response protocols to help with the containment and clean-up. With two ship-related pellet pollution events already recorded in 2023, it is likely a question of when, not if, these events will next occur.

Preventing plastic pellet pollution is in everyone’s best interest: the pollution is not only a disaster for the environment, but a drain on resources, and marine insurers are also calling for greater regulation. Only when mandatory measures are in place will the playing field be truly level, and only then can true impact be achieved.

We had hoped to see proactive decisions taken on this issue at the IMO’s most recent Marine Environmental Protection Committee meeting in July 2023, but once again, plastic pellet regulation did not materialise.

As the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL, turns 50 this year, and September’s World Maritime Day shines a spotlight on the IMO’s legacy of pollution prevention of the marine environment from ships, countries have an opportunity to be on the right side of history by securing mandatory measures for plastic pellets over the next year, to make widespread pollution a thing of the past. Under no circumstances should this preventable pollution be allowed to drag on beyond 2024.

For more information on plastic pellet pollution, and Fauna & Flora’s campaign to put an end to it, visit: fauna-flora.org/nurdles

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