Every year the plastics industry produces about 113 million tonnes of plastic pellets (or 'nurdles'). They are the building blocks used to make everything from drinks bottles and yoghurt pots to garden furniture and car dashboards. But not all of them end up where they should.
According to a Global Ocean Commission report published last year, there are 3,500 plastic pellets floating on the surface of every square kilometre of the Sargasso Sea.
Near industrial centres in New Zealand, 100,000 pellets per square kilometre have been observed on the beach. Closer to home, the Firth of Forth in Scotland has become a hotspot for 'lost' pellets.
"They're appearing all around our coastline and there is currently no practical way to clear them up," says Sarah Archer, project manager for the Great Nurdle Hunt at Fidra, a local Scottish environmental charity. That's bad news for the environment, with the pellets mistaken for food by fish, birds and other marine life.
Another big concern is how readily the pellets and other microplastic particles attract persistent bioaccumulating toxins. These can be absorbed by animals that ingest them, in turn affecting predators higher up the food chain. "I think the extent of the problem is only just being realised," Archer continues. "But there are plenty of simple steps industry can take to reduce losses in the first place – and some have already done so."
Indeed, in April, the UN's group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection produced the first global assessment of the sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the world's oceans. The authors confirmed that "it seems unlikely that a cost-effective technical solution can be developed and maintained to allow the large-scale removal of significant quantities of floating microplastics from the ocean. Any proposed scheme would be ineffective as long as plastics and microplastics continue to enter the ocean."
Prevention is therefore better than cure. The report concludes: "… better control of the sources of plastic waste, through applying the principles of the three 'Rs' (reduce, re-use, recycle), and improving the overall management of plastics via the circular economy, represents the most efficient and cost-effective way of reducing the quantity of plastic objects and microplastic particles accumulating in the ocean." The working group also agreed on an urgent need to implement effective measures to reduce all 'inputs' of plastic to the ocean.
So, what actions have the plastics industry taken and are fewer pellets being spilled?
Sarah Plant is public and industrial affairs manager at the British Plastics Federation (BPF). She says the organisation is working "tirelessly" to support efforts that prevent plastics ending up in waterways, seas and oceans. This is principally through Operation Clean Sweep.
OCS, which has its origins in the US and was designed by the plastics industry, offers a set of low-cost spill containment measures that have been proven to reduce 'leakage' of pellets from industrial plants. This includes steps such as sealing bulk containers properly, installing catch trays and extra training for staff. "The programme has already helped to implement effective corrective action in many companies within the plastics industry", Plant explains.
Both the BPF and Plastics Europe say they have been pushing more companies to sign up. According to the BPF's website, 41 companies have so far pledged to "strive towards zero pellet loss" through OCS since 2009. This represents only 10% of the total membership, but includes the ones that matter, says BPF director general Philip Law. "The emphasis in OCS is more towards distributing companies and we have pretty much a comprehensive list of distributors and masterbatch manufacturers."
One of them is Wells Plastics. Carl Birch is sales and marketing director at the Staffordshire-based firm. "We got involved in 2014 in a period when we were undertaking a number of initiatives that OCS sat quite nicely with," he explains. The company has since put in more traps to prevent pellet loss, enhanced the performance of the traps already in place and rolled out extra training for those handling the pellets. There's also a full-time cleaner in place – pellet spills not only being a risk to the environment, but a health and safety issue too.
Indeed, a big selling point of OCS is how it fits in with good business practice. Birch is therefore surprised that more companies haven't signed up. The BPF has done a good job of promoting it, he says, adding: "Perhaps others see it as too difficult? It's not sophisticated stuff and [OCS was not designed] to bamboozle anyone." Much less straightforward is benchmarking the scheme and any progress being made. Those companies signed up will have carried out an initial audit to identify improvements. But have they reduced pellet loss from their plants into the environment?
The devil is in the detail
BPF and Plastics Europe both failed to provide RWW with specific details of what companies have achieved since signing up to OCS, or how that might translate to industry-wide improvements and the end goal: zero pellet loss. It was a similar story for those involved in transportation, with a spokeswoman for the Freight Trade Association suggesting that pellet loss and spills were not issues the organisation had any involvement in.
This is concerning. For any environmental programme – whether it's carbon footprints or waste reductions, water use or pellet loss – measurement is critical in order to track progress, highlight best practice and ensure value for money.
There also needs to be an understanding of risks.
Tanya Cox is projects manager for marine plastics at Fauna & Flora International (FFI). She feels that there remains an opportunity to improve the overall transparency of OCS through improved (on site) monitoring and evaluation to demonstrate what measures have successfully been put in place to prevent pellet loss. Without wanting to add unnecessary red tape or administrative burden to the sector, Cox feels that if companies are willing to sign up to such a scheme, they should be willing to show the positive difference it is making.
It could also make business sense. Wells' Birch notes that "pellet loss is profit loss", so what better way to justify the implementation of OCS than to show a saving in pounds sterling? This could also encourage other companies to get involved, and share best practice across the sector. It could also keep regulators happy. Marine litter generally is on the political radar. Defra has been discussing how to reduce pellet loss with industry – the department suggests BPF is working to get the commitment of every company that handles pellets to follow practices to prevent, contain and clean up lost plastic materials to ensure none escape into the environment.
According to one industry observer, the vast majority of BPF members handle pellets – which means there is a long way to go.
Politicians are unlikely to ramp up the pressure any time soon, though. Marine litter is a hot topic, but OCS was pretty much an afterthought in Defra's recent consultation on the programme of measures that will help achieve some of the aims in the EU's Marine Strategy Framework Directive. At EU level there has also been "very little discussion" on pellet loss, according to Emma Priestland, marine litter policy officer at NGO Seas At Risk. "It's an issue that has escaped the attention of policy makers, beyond a brief mention in the green paper on a European Strategy for plastic waste."
But that doesn't mean there won't be pressure from elsewhere. Retailers are also interested in marine litter, with Selfridges having just announced that it would no longer be selling single-use plastic bottles in its stores and restaurants.
The aim is to "drive awareness of the serious threat plastic poses to our oceans; in particular single-use plastic water bottles", says deputy chairman Alannah Weston.
A focus for consumers?
Curbing that form of macroplastic marine litter will require changes to consumer behaviour and responsibility, but the plastics industry – as noted in the OCS manual – must also contain the products it uses.
Pellet loss is unlikely to become a focus for consumers, but it's already apparently on the radar of some well-known food and drink brands – companies that are keen to ensure the packaging they use is responsibly manufactured.
An OCS-certified packaging system may be some way off, but those involved in plastics and packaging should be prepared for their business customers to start asking questions.
And this is exactly why the likes of Fidra and FFI believe there is an opportunity for the sector to use plastic pellets and OCS as a positive story in which they are reducing their impact on the environment.
No one is talking about ridding the world of plastics – the industry is creating what the market demands – but they are calling for responsible production.
"We want to work with the support of local industry to prevent pellet loss in the first place," says Fidra's Archer. "We would love the Firth of Forth to be the first industrialised
area to fully demonstrate a commitment to zero pellet loss – paving the way for Scotland and the UK's entire plastic industry to do the same."