The great spill of the plastics industry: mountains of nurdles on the beach
On the narrow bank in Zandvliet, where the Scheldt-Rhine Canal bends and flows parallel to the Dutch border, biologist Bert Teunkens turns over a few boulders. As a PhD student at the University of Antwerp, he researches plastic pollution in and around the river Scheldt. Ninety percent of the time he fishes up plastic foil from the water. Ten percent of his research time is spent on what we find here.
He doesn’t point me to beetles or woodlice beds that shoot away in a hurry, but to grains in white, blue and yellow that are scattered all over the place between the stones. ‘There’ and ‘there’ and ‘here’. His fingers pick the granules out of the humid silt covered with plant debris.
Birds pick up the pellets and die eventually of hunger on a full stomach.
They are plastic pellets, also known as nurdles. They are the building blocks of most plastic products. From bottles and candy packaging to sewage pipes to pots and bath ducks. They are all made from these granules, which have been systematically leaked into the environment since the start of industrial plastics production some sixty years ago. It is an invisible waste, the scale of which is receiving increasing attention because the pellets are washed up on beaches all over the world.
Sometimes the pellets are layers thick. Birds scavenge between them and pick them up. Some of them are defecated, while others accumulate in their digestive system. Eventually the birds die of hunger on a full stomach.
From 8 to 17 February, volunteers in 32 countries went out to search for the plastic granules on 352 beaches and riverbanks. It was the annual Great Nurdle Hunt, the hunt for nurdles. It sounds as cheerful as an average comics book, but it is a serious citizen-science project of the Scottish NGO Fidra to get an idea of the pellet pollution.
Volunteers collect and count the plastic pellets. It is the only exitsting form of transparent montoring.
It is the only form of transparent monitoring that exists. Even if it is a registration after the facts and without a clear view of the concrete places where the accidental discharge took place. After all, pellets that are washed ashore may have been floating around in the sea for years.
In 85 percent of the sites surveyed along rivers and oceans, the volunteers discovered nurdles. 9000 on the beaches of Tortuga Bay on the Galapagos Islands. Millions — countless, in other words — on Ferrycraigs beach in Scotland.
All data is collected and brought together in the nurdle map. Each dot represents a location. The colour tells something about the scale of pollution. Yellow for less than thirty nurdles; aubergine for more than a thousand.
‘You can find them in the most remote places’, says Jasper Hamlet via Skype from North Berwick in Scotland, home of Fidra. From Easter Island to the Galapagos.
1150 billion nurdles lost
He lists a series of numbers that make me dizzy. 230,000 tonnes of pellets are lost every year worldwide during transport, storage, further transport, processing into new plastics and the recycling of old plastics. For Europe alone it would be 167,431 tonnes.
One pellet weighs about 20 milligrams, is feather-light and blows away easily. 230,000 tonnes — do you remember — are 1150 billion plastic granules that are dumped unintentionally and unattended every year.
They are industrial leaks. Carelessness in the various steps of the chain that are not reflected in producers’ profit or loss figures. A thousand pellets cost nothing, but once they end up in nature, you can’t get them out.
‘In the absence of publicly available data on pellet loss, everything we know is based on estimates’, concludes Hamlet.
He refers to the most comprehensive research report on pellet pollution provided by the British consultancy firm Eunomia to the Directorate-General for the Environment (DG Environment) of the European Commission in February 2018.
The inaccurate treatment of pellets in the industry is the second largest source of microplastics in the environment, after tyre wear (and before synthetic fibres in clothes). But also, says the report, ‘no additional data were obtained on the extent and scale of the loss throughout the chain, despite extensive discussions with stakeholders in the plastics industry’.
Floating in the docks
Biologist Teunkens stands up and slaps the dust off his pants. ‘There are fewer nurdles than usual. Sometimes they lay here centimetres thick.’ He looks out over the water that is rhythmically sloshing against the steep channel edges to the left and right of the cobbled beach.
‘Though no one has any idea exactly how many are drifting in the docks. What you see is the tip of the iceberg. Light pellets float and end up on beaches or banks. The heavier ones sink and don’t show up in the statistics.’
On dry days, the pellets are visible everywhere. When it rains, they flush from the road into the sewerage system and end up in the river Scheldt.
It’s one of the tests Teunkens is planning for the next few years. He wants to take samples from the soil sediment in the Verrebroek dock on the left bank of the river Scheldt, to see if pellets have nestled in it.
After Houston in the United States, the port of Antwerp is the second largest petrochemical hub in the world. The gas and oil that arrive here by ship are partly processed into pellets and plastic products, forty percent of which are for single use.
With ten pellet-producing installations, five logistics companies and eight processing companies that either produce new plastic products or recycle old ones, tons of pellets are produced, transported, stored and shipped every year in the port of Antwerp.
Pellets are lost in every operation. On dry days, they are visible everywhere. In the gutters along the roads where ExxonMobil, BASF or Ineos have their production centres, but also in the lush greenery on the verges and in and around the sewer grids. When it rains, they flush from the road into the sewerage system and end up in the river Scheldt.
Two years ago, the port authority of Antwerp signed a charter with the various companies in the plastic chain to strive for zero loss of pellets. For thirty years, Plastics Europe as a sector federation has been trying to do the same with the Operation Clean Sweep, a six-point plan for companies that voluntarily join.
The advantage is that companies become aware of the scale of the problem, while the disadvantage is that the commitment is made on a voluntary basis without any further follow-up or monitoring.
‘Every company realises that this product poses a danger.’
Self-regulation sounds nice and attractive, but it is seldom an effective tool for profound change. This also applies to pellet pollution. The problem is not solved by a sincere promise to do better.
‘It’s true that we’re not there yet’, says Vincent Van Dyck. He is the environmental expert at the Port of Antwerp and registers the loss of pellets at five hotspots in the port every week. Where possible, the Port Authority removes the pellets.
It is estimated that four tonnes of pellets were disposed of in 2017 and 2.5 tonnes in 2018. These are still billions of pellets lost between production and processing. When asked when the port wants to achieve the target of zero loss, Van Dyck replies: ‘As soon as possible. Ultimately, no one wants this to happen. Not the port, not the sector’.
‘Every company realises that this product poses a danger. We will persuade every new company that sets up here and that does anything with polymers (chemical compounds found in plastics, ed.) to sign the charter.’
Implicitly that sounds like a reference to the investment that the chemical company Ineos is projecting into the port area. The originally British (but for tax reasons based in Switzerland) company plans to build a cracker plant which converts ethane into ethylene, and a propane dehydration plant (PDH) which makes propylene from propane.
During the presentation of this so-called Project One, there was talk of the annual processing of one million tonnes of propane and at least as many tonnes of ethane. This corresponds to the production of several billions of pellets from shale gas by-products. The plastic pellets will then be transported for further processing to other companies, in the port or overseas.
‘A perfectly avoidable environmental problem’, that’s how Tim Grabiel of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) describes the involuntary discharges of pellets by the plastics industry In March 2019 he presented a briefing on pellets to the European Commission as part of the European plastics strategy European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.
‘Preventing the loss of pellets is not rocket science. It is perfectly doable, and above all it is necessary.’
Because even if we ban disposable plastics, use less plastic and one day recycle all plastics, pellets will remain the building blocks of the plastics that we still need. That’s why zero tolerance for loss of pellets is so fundamental. Grabiel points to the precautionary principle that is enshrined in European legislation, more specifically Article 191(2) of the European Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Land-Based Sources of Origin.
On the phone from Paris, he reads it to me loud and clear. ‘European environmental policy is based on the precautionary principle and on the principle that action must be taken, that environmental damage must be tackled as a priority at source and that the polluter must pay.’
‘In the case of pellet pollution’, he says. ‘This is not happening at the moment. This is 100% the responsibility of the plastics industry. Thirty years of efforts by the industry with Operation Clean Sweep have failed to deliver enough, even though the measures they propose can be effective. Preventing the loss of pellets is not rocket science. It is perfectly doable, and above all it is necessary.’
Plastic pellets in numbers:
Every year, 230.000 tons are lost worldwide, which means 1,150,000,000,000 (or 1150 billion) plastic pellets end up in the environment.
In 2017 4000 kg of pellets have been collected in the port of Antwerp.
In 2018 that was 2500 kg.
Under the radar
‘There are three reasons why companies do not systematically implement the practices.’ Grabiel sums them up. ‘There is no legal obligation. There is no financial incentive. As pellets cost nothing, preventing loss is more expensive than losing pellets.’
‘And thirdly, the problem remains under the radar, so that companies do not suffer from reputational damage. Due to a lack of transparency, it is never clear where the loss occurred. Everyone in the chain can point fingers at one another. That is why every company in the chain must be obliged to take responsibility.’
This is what the EIA is advocating to the European Commission: make the voluntary Operation Clean Sweep an obligation, including monitoring, follow-up and immediate registration of pellet losses.
‘If a bag bursts along the way, if a container is knocked overboard on the high seas with pellets in it, it must be known immediately. Now it is only discovered when the pellets are washed ashore somewhere. That is far to late. Then it’s impossible to find out where they came from.’
Bird paradise with pellets
Behind the belt of dunes that separates the top beach of the Zeeland island of Neeltje Jans from the concrete dike that serves as a car park, Daniel Siepman picks up a wooden frame covered with metal wire mesh from the trunk of his car, which most resembles a mosquito net in front of a medium-size window.
It’s his second prototype of a nurdle sieve, which he developed and assembled himself. He already has ten orders from people who are interested in it. He also brought the first prototype with him. But, as he discovered while sieving the sand, the diameter of the meshes in the metal plate was slightly too large. The pellets just fell through again with the sand.
Every few weeks Siepman, as a volunteer, sits on his knees on the highest tide line near the edge of the dunes to sift sand, pick up pellets and weigh them up. He collects the plastic pellets in bags on which he records the location and date and sends them to the University of Wageningen, where they are analysed and traced.
‘It never stops’, Siepman says, as we weave our way through the dunes with the two sifters under our arms. On the beach we walk like ducks in a row, weighing up every step to avoid disturbing a dwarf tern’s nest. Topsstrand is their protected breeding area. When we look over the waves, we see them shaving through the air, their shrill calls resounding in the strong wind.
Two years ago, De Groot saw the pellets for the first time. The following week she organised her very first Beach Clean-Up.
‘This is supposed to be a bird paradise’, says Inge de Groot, who walks with us. ‘This is probably the first thing such a bird would pick up when it breaks out of its egg.’ She falls to her knees and grabs a few pellets. They are everywhere. Trapped in the sand, blown together in piles, wiped against the helm grass.
‘Nobody knows where they come from’, De Groot continues. ‘Ten years ago, a container sunk. Are the remnants of the cargo still being washed up? A container can easily hold a billion of those things. Or are these the pellets that were on board the MSC Zoe whose containers ended up in the sea at the beginning of January?’
Scraping and sieving
Two years ago, De Groot saw them for the first time. It was an ice-cold winter’s day. A beautiful day for beach photos. In the ice that had formed under the edge of the dunes, she discovered coloured dots. Confetti, it seemed, but they were plastic granules. ‘Thousands’, she says.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t clean up for a year. But then one thinks of the birds and goes back to work. Clean up the mess.’
The following week, De Groot organised her very first Beach Clean-Up. Hundreds of volunteers cleaned the beach as much as possible. Now she repeats it every once in a while. At the beginning of February, after a big storm, they went to the beach in large numbers with tractors with vacuum cleaners to remove the pellets.
‘This is symptom control,’ she says. ‘Here you can see the worldwide problem on one square metre. You can pick all day long and then you hear the port of Rotterdam proudly bragging that they will have the largest transhipment capacity in the whole of Europe for pellets. What’s the point?’ She shrugs her shoulders and points to the prints of bird’s legs between the pellets.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t clean up for a year. But then one thinks of the birds and goes back to work. Clean up the mess. Even though my head spins when I see the predictions. 30 percent more plastics by 2030. No, that’s really not possible. We need less plastic, not more.’
Siepman sieves and scrapes, sieves and scrapes. He puts the pellets that he can filter out of the sand into a plastic box filled with water. To separate pellets from pieces of shell, crumbled crab legs and other organic material.
‘It is a work of long haul. There is no good technique for collecting them. The most advanced thing I’ve seen so far is a kind of trommel. You put the sand in it, let it rotate and the pellets stick to the side.’
Siepman looks at the tens of metres of beach stretching to his left and right. ‘Even with the sieves. If we have ten, we can get some distance.’
He sieves and scrapes, sieves and scrapes. ‘It is a work of long haul.’
In Antwerp, Teunkens takes me to the salt marsh area behind the dike on the Scheldelaan, where Ineos has a production unit for pellets. Here, directly opposite the cooling towers of the nuclear power plants on the other side, the Galgeschoor is managed, a valuable nature reserve according to the standards of Natura 2000. Grey goose and common teal hibernate there; numerous wading birds breed there and forage in the silt.
Teunkens shows me a concrete drainage pipe with a non-return valve through which the rainwater from the Scheldelaan flows directly into the river Scheldt.
‘You can’t just intervene there. You’re stuck with breeding seasons, with special plants. We don’t know how best to handle it.’
Above our heads oystercatchers cleave through the air; a shelduck with young hurries into the reed collar. The peaty brown soil under our feet is full of white pellets. Like a pile of coarse artificial snow they lie clumped together on the spring tide line.
‘They are thrown onto the bank from the water’, Teunkens says. ‘Other plastic is also washed ashore here. That is being cleaned up. But this,’ he tinkers with the tip of his shoe in the layer, ‘this will never be cleaned up again. The only way is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
Because of the tidal action, the Galgeschoor is not included in the measuring points of the harbour. It is located outside the statistics and registration. ‘There is an accumulation of historical pollution’, says Van Dyck. ‘You can’t just intervene there. You’re stuck with breeding seasons, with special plants. We don’t know how best to handle it.’
The port is thinking about organising a competition, hoping someone will come up with an ingenious solution. A technical innovation that takes pellets out of the environment. Van Dyck: ‘We are preparing a challenge for which we want to engage the entire community.’
Persistent organic pollutants
I scrape together a handful of pellets and think about Ineos’ planned investment. Three billion to produce even more pellets. Of which 40% for disposable plastics.
“You shouldn’t touch them with your bare hands,” says Teunkens. I look at him in a questioning way. ‘POP’, he says. ‘Persistent organic pollutants. Remnants of DDT or PCBs in the water.’
It’s another characteristic of these plastic granules. Not only can they release stabilisers and other additives, they also attach contaminated and toxic substances such as DDT, PCBs or mercury to themselves. They’re toxic particles.
The screaming of the oystercatcher swells. We are in his domain. He claims his territory. We withdraw silently. On top of the dike I turn around. He has landed on the spot where we just stood. Its orange-coloured mouth flashes over the ground.