February 2016

Study Shows Up to 53 Billion Plastic Pellets Could Be Lost in the UK Each Year

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Eunomia has completed a study that identifies the likely quantity of pre-production plastic pellets lost to the UK environment each year could be up to 53 billion – that’s the equivalent of spilling up to 35 full tanker-loads.

The study, commissioned by the environmental charity Fidra, explores a number of issues relating to the loss of plastic pellets from facilities in the UK. The pellets, sometimes known as nurdles, are small lentil-sized particles of plastic that are used as feedstock for the manufacture of plastic products. Fidra and other organisations have found these small plastic pellets on beaches, in estuaries, and floating in waterbodies, suggesting that they are somehow getting released and finding their way into the marine environment.

The study involved a review of the international literature on pellet loss, and engagement with key stakeholders from the plastics industry, regulators and academics in the UK, Europe and beyond. The authors also considered the relative strength of the financial incentives acting upon firms to both prevent, and clean up, pellet spills. The report makes a number of recommendations as to how the problem of pellet loss can best be tackled.

Dr Madeleine Berg, Projects Officer at Fidra said:

“The report suggests an alarming number of pellets could be lost to the environment each year in the UK. Countless pellets already litter UK beaches, as shown by the results of our citizen science survey project ‘The Great Nurdle Hunt’. Unfortunately, there is no way to clean them up once at sea, so we must make sure no further pellets are released.

“Pellet loss is an entirely avoidable source of pollution, and at Fidra we aim to work with industry to stop it for good. Operation Clean Sweep® is an industry-devised scheme supported by the British Plastics Federation and Plastics Europe, which allows companies to pledge their commitment to zero pellet loss. We encourage local companies to sign up to the scheme and many share our concern for the issue. We hope the report will raise awareness of the problem and lead to further uptake of the scheme.

“We would welcome further research, with support from industry, to monitor improvements made by the voluntary OCS® programme and to provide more robust estimates of pellet loss into the environment.”

Dr Chris Sherrington, Principal Consultant at Eunomia, who directed the plastic pellet loss project added:

“We’re very pleased to have provided a report for Fidra that gives further insights and analysis that will assist them as they work with firms and trade bodies towards the achievement of the plastics industry’s own ambitions of ‘zero pellet loss’.

“While the tonnages lost from the production process are not insignificant they’re actually a relatively small part of a much wider problem. As noted in a recent report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (EMF), it is estimated that of the approximately 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging produced globally each year, 32% ‘leaks’ into the terrestrial or marine environment. The EMF report further states that plastic packaging is almost exclusively single use, especially in business to consumer applications.

“If, for example, just 1% of the plastic drink bottles consumed in the UK each year were to ‘leak’ in this way, the tonnage entering the environment would be double our upper bound estimate of pellet loss.”

This recent study adds to Eunomia’s track record in terrestrial and marine litter-related research and policy development for a range of clients across public, private and third sectors.

Read the full report here.