Marine Plastics Projects Manager, Fauna & Flora International
Pictures of seabirds with brightly coloured plastic in their stomachs, or turtles wrapped in discarded fishing nets, have become all too common. These images have helped spur policy action on the most visible sources of plastic pollution such as single-use bags or straws.
There is a far less visible but arguably more harmful culprit stalking our oceans: plastic pellets.
A type of microplastic no more than five millimetres across in size, plastic pellets are the building blocks of nearly all plastic items. The raw material for the plastics industry, they are melted together to create finished plastic products.
These pellets get spilled throughout the plastic supply chain, escaping into waterways and polluting the ocean, where they get mistaken for food by wildlife. Pellets also adsorb toxic chemicals from the water and can transfer these toxins to marine life.
Pellet pollution crisis – particularly in the UK
Identified as the world’s second largest direct source of microplastic pollution in the ocean, it’s estimated that up to fifty-three billion pellets a year enter the ocean from the UK alone.
Pellets have been found on every European coastline that volunteers have checked, with pellet pollution hotspots emerging near industrial sites, suggesting chronic pollution throughout the plastic supply chain.
Up to fifty-three billion pellets a year enter the ocean from the UK alone.
This is where big plastic-using brands have an important role to play. As the final link in the supply chain, they can request information from their suppliers regarding pellet spills and put pressure on them to handle and transport pellets in a way that minimises these spills.
Some are starting to recognise this – IKEA has said it audited some of its suppliers, but it is yet to publish its results.
Urgent action required to achieve a circular plastics economy
Fauna & Flora International, which has been working on the issue of plastic pellet loss, believes there is growing momentum among policymakers and investors to demand effective and transparent pellet loss prevention measures across the industry.
However, there is still an urgent need for more widespread recognition that pellets are the weak link in the ambition for a circular plastics economy – an outcome many multinational brands have committed to.
The focus to date has been on recycling, which means putting waste back into the system. But the system cannot be a truly closed loop until pellet spills are stopped. Tackling pellet pollution must be a priority if we’re to achieve a circular plastics economy.
By prioritising pellet pollution and exerting their sizeable influence, brands, investors and policymakers can all help create a system that reduces plastic pellet pollution. And we can all demand that these key groups take responsibility for cleaning up plastic supply chains – and our oceans.