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Eliminating dangerous plastic pellet pollution

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Daisy-Daisy

Hazel Akester

Marine Plastics Programme Officer, Fauna & Flora International

Next time you’re on a beach, scanning the sand for seashells, take a look at the tideline. You’ll likely find a different kind of colourful debris peppered among the seaweed: plastic pellets.


Pellets are lentil-sized pieces of plastic and the raw material for virtually all plastic products. From water bottles to swimsuits to piping, most plastic products in our daily lives start out as pellets.

Billions of these plastic pellets are spilled by companies every year in the making of plastic products. While individual spills may be very small, together, they amount to an estimated 230,000 tonnes of pellets pouring into the ocean every year. That’s equivalent to 10 billion single use plastic water bottles. Once in the ocean, pellets are eaten by seabirds and other sea creatures, with potential to cause severe harm.

Pellet pollution is solely attributable to the plastic industry, making it a problem that the industry is responsible for fixing.

Pellets were found polluting the ocean in the 1970s, and have since been recorded on every European coastline that volunteers have searched

Persistent pollution since the 1970s

Pellets were found polluting the ocean in the 1970s, and have since been recorded on every European coastline that volunteers have searched. The plastic industry has a voluntary initiative called Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) designed to address this problem but, as we approach its 30th birthday, pellet pollution remains a global problem.

While individual spills may be very small, together they amount to an estimated 230,000 tonnes of pellets pouring into the ocean every year. That’s equivalent to 10 billion single use plastic water bottles.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working with other NGOs and the plastics industry to tackle pellet pollution since 2012. While there has been some increased interest in this topic, it is starkly clear that much more needs to be done across the supply chain to stop this avoidable plastic pollution.

Setting the standard for pellet loss prevention

This is why FFI is participating in the development of the first global pellet handling and management standard, which will be available for use in mid-2021 by any company along the plastic supply chain. This standard is being developed by British Standards Institution with sponsorship from Marine Scotland, British Plastics Federation and nine investor companies coordinated by the Investor Forum, who are being represented by FFI during the standard development process. We join companies, policymakers, investors, other NGO experts and scientists in creating this standard, which will build on the groundwork laid by OCS, and lay the foundation for certification schemes that can verify company compliance against specified pellet loss prevention measures.

Globally, 230,000 tonnes of pellets enter the ocean year; that is equivalent to 10 billion 600ml plastic bottles

Driving uptake along the whole supply chain has been historically difficult

Integral to the success of this standard – and future certification schemes – in addressing the pellet pollution problem is uptake of measures along the full plastic supply chain, which has been a notable weakness of OCS.

Every step in the supply chain, including producers of pellets, transporters, logistics and storage companies, converters, manufacturers of plastic products and retailers, need to ensure that the pellet loss prevention measures outlined in the standard are implemented throughout their supply chain, in order to make a tangible difference in the sheer volume of pellets entering the ocean.

FFI will be working to encourage retailers, investors and all companies that form part of the plastic supply chain, beyond the leaders taking part in the standard’s development, to use this upcoming standard to eliminate a fully preventable source of plastic pollution.

In doing so, they can help to ensure that millions of pellets don’t find their way to the tideline or stomachs of vulnerable marine life.

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