New FFI Report Highlights Need For Stricter Measures To Curb Plastic Pellet Pollution

A new report by international wildlife conservation charity, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), highlights the disastrous impact of plastic pellet pollution on marine wildlife and calls for a more robust, regulatory approach from industry, governments and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to put an end to plastic pellet loss at all stages of the supply chain.

Plastic pellets, or ‘nurdles’, are lentil-sized pieces of plastic that are melted together to create almost all plastic items used day-to-day. Pellets are a significant source of microplastic pollution; they spill on land and at sea in staggering numbers, especially while in transit, and it is estimated that billions of individual pellets enter the ocean every year.

Plastic pellet pollution is both a chronic problem and an acute one. Chronic loss results from smaller-scale leaks and losses during the various stages of pellet handling, transportation and manufacturing. Acute loss refers to large numbers of pellets entering the environment in one go, for example when, in May 2021, the Singapore-registered MV X-Press Pearl caught fire and approximately 84 billion pellets were spilled from the ship into the Indian ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka.

Plastic Pellet Pollution

FFI’s new report, titled ‘Stemming the tide: putting an end to plastic pellet pollution’, deep dives into plastic pellets’ impact on the environment and biodiversity, explores the points at which pellets are lost on land and at sea, and analyses the limitations of existing preventative action. The report crucially highlights that plastic pellet pollution is preventable and concludes with a series of evidence-based recommendations for immediate measures and regulations that can be put in place to curb the issue.

Amongst the recommendations outlined in FFI’s report is a call for the IMO, which is responsible for regulating global shipping, to classify plastic pellets as marine pollutants, which would mean that they are immediately subject much stricter handling rules when shipped at sea.

Other recommendations range from the use of appropriate packaging from the point of production to the point of delivery, to improving disaster response in the event of major spillages.

Tanya Cox, Senior Technical Specialist, Marine Plastics, FFI, explains: “There is a growing body of evidence documenting the sheer scale of plastic pellet pollution, the harm it causes to marine life and its impacts on ecosystems and human livelihoods. But, attempts to prevent pellet loss and minimise its impact have, to-date, been limited, despite the issue being entirely preventable.

“Current pellet loss prevention measures are voluntary in nature and mainly focus on land-based sources of pollution, however there is a critical need for complementary measures that will reduce the risk of pellets being lost during transport at sea as well.

“While the early adopters of voluntary, preventative action should be applauded for their efforts, as our report outlines, it is clear that voluntary action alone is insufficient to level the playing field and drive the systemic change needed to eliminate this form of pollution, both on land and at sea. We need an urgent move towards a regulatory approach, with mandatory requirements that are supported by rigorous standards and certification schemes.”

Not only are plastic pellets increasingly littering oceans and beaches around the world, they are often mistaken for food by marine life and are regularly eaten or ingested, filling the stomachs of fish and animals and leading to starvation.

While pellets are inherently hazardous due to the toxic additives they contain, they also act like a sponge, adsorbing and accumulating bacteria and persistent environmental pollutants that are present in sea water. When pellets come into contact with, or are eaten by, marine animals, the toxins, chemicals and bacteria can potentially be transferred to the animal, effectively acting as a poisoned pill for marine life.

Catherine Weller, Director, Global Policy, FFI, comments: “It’s up to all those that handle plastic pellets – including raw material providers, transporters and plastic product manufacturers – to do everything in their power to ensure that plastic pellets are properly stored, transported and handled. But we’re also calling for action from policymakers; they have a number of open opportunities to have an immediate, positive impact. If mandatory requirements for all pellet handlers are put in place, it won’t just be those voluntarily choosing best practice who will be accountable for tackling the problem.

“Our report is a useful reference tool for policymakers who are considering the most effective interventions to stop pellet pollution on a national, regional and international basis, not least as the world comes together to consider regulatory action by the IMO and, in parallel, negotiate solutions to the global plastic pollution crisis under the auspices of the United Nations Global Plastic Treaty.”

Ambassador Peter Thomson, UNSG’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, who provides the foreword for the FFI report, comments: “The harm being caused by plastic and microplastic pollution is as perverse as it is inexcusable. It’s clear that the damaging impact of plastic pellet pollution needs to be raised to much higher ground on the global agenda. It is an assault on nature and, with the right attitude to living harmoniously on this planet, it is entirely preventable.

“By weight, pellets are estimated to be the second largest direct source of microplastic marine pollution, with the harm these invasive pieces of plastic are causing being, in the strongest sense of the word, reprehensible. All human-created problems have human solutions, and with logic, moral force and willpower there’s no challenge we can’t overcome. When it comes to plastic pollution, FFI’s new report points us in the direction to do just that.”

To access FFI’s report, ‘Stemming the tide: putting an end to plastic pellet pollution’, and the full list of recommendations, please visit:

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