Freight railroads and the plastics industry have started to work together to address a side effect of North America’s booming plastics production: the dispersion of wayward plastic pellets in transit.
Plastic pellets, or resin pellets, are a feedstock used in plastics production. They can look like small round orbs or balls. But because of their size, they can easily disperse during transport. Environmental groups have said that following a storm, these pellets, which are also called nurdles, can be carried by stormwater runoff, becoming waste in the marine ecosystem.
To address this issue, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) several years ago developed a campaign called Operation Clean Sweep (OCS). The campaign seeks to reduce plastic pellet, flake and powder loss. The campaign is part of a broader global effort to address marine litter.
OCS’ development comes as the ACC and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2017 determined that the boom in U.S. plastic production would result in an additional 1.8 million annual freight shipments by 2020, with railcars increasing by 270,000 units.
“This pledge is an opportunity for Norfolk Southern to lead by example,” said Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) Chief Sustainability Officer Josh Raglin. Norfolk Southern (NS) recently announced that it signed onto the campaign, as did Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU).
“Stewardship of resources is embedded in our business strategy. This effort will join our long list of actions and commitments to protecting the environment and supporting our communities, like our carbon mitigation programs, low-emission locomotives, land conservation and living shoreline projects,” Raglin said.
As part of its involvement in the OCS campaign, NS will look at how it loads, inspects and unloads its hopper cars as they’re en route with plastic products, NS told FreightWaves. The railroad also will be adding to its job briefing and inspection protocols on how to monitor and address the potential dispersion of plastic pellets. These steps will take place across areas of NS’ system where plastics customers are located, it said.
“Norfolk Southern will work to achieve zero loss of plastic resin into the environment,” NS Chief Marketing Officer Alan Shaw said in a release. “We are developing an extensive education campaign to raise awareness among our employees and we will increase our scrutiny to make sure the hopper cars we transport are properly secured and sealed.”
Kansas City Southern (KCS) said it also became a member of OCS on Friday.
The rail carrier, with a network in the U.S. Midwest and Mexico that has access to plastic production facilities on the Gulf Coast, has planned several initiatives to address plastic pellet litter. They include developing a transload environmental compliance evaluation program for facilities on KCS property, incorporating an OCS Best Management Practices into the company’s stormwater pollution prevention training and referencing the OCS Program Manual in future plastics transload agreements, KCS said.
“As a transportation provider, this is an important initiative and a direct way that KCS can work toward eliminating plastic waste in the environment,” said KCS Chief Marketing Officer Mike Naatz. “We are committed to adopting and implementing the Operation Clean Sweep program of best management practices to reduce pellet, flake and powder loss for the protection of the environment.”
PLASTICS said it hoped more transportation providers would sign the OCS pledge. The group offers participating companies an implementation manual that includes procedures, checklists and posters, according to Patrick Krieger, director of sustainability and materials with PLASTICS.
While OCS membership is currently over 500, 22 companies, mainly plastics producers, are part of an additional tier that collects information on unrecovered release of plastic pellets and then reports that information annually to PLASTICS or ACC, Kriegher said.
“S.C. Ports supports Operation Clean Sweep, a global commitment to ensure all handling of synthetic resins involves environmental stewardship and good housekeeping to protect our waterways and environment,” said SCPA spokesperson Liz Crumley.
Measures that SCPA undertake include regularly inspecting customers’ operations on its terminals and working with customers to ensure best management practices related to handling plastic cargo, she said.
“The resin export opportunity is significant for the south Atlantic port market. It assists in fulfilling the port’s mission of growing waterborne commerce and supporting companies needing to move goods to global markets. This market is also attractive to our ocean carrier customers in correcting their equipment imbalance,” Crumley said. “The handling of plastics for export is an important part of SCPA’s export growth strategy, with the understanding that it is handled by reputable companies with sound, sophisticated packaging procedures.”
Plastics pellets’ release in question at Port of Charleston
Environmental groups have been concerned that plastics producers and other stakeholders haven’t done enough to prevent the spillage of pellets at production facilities and along the supply chain.
“When it comes to controlling the releases of plastic resin pellets and powders during rail and truck transport, it comes down to basic housekeeping. At every connection point, from entry into the railcar to exit, there’s an opportunity for spills to occur when disconnecting hoses and valves,” said Miriam Gordon, policy director for UPSTREAM Solutions, which seeks to prevent plastics pollution and encourage consumers to use reusable products. “The best practice is to vacuum up the spilled pellets and powders. It’s not rocket science. It’s amazing how few facilities take these and other simple precautions to prevent feedstock materials from entering the environment. The cleanup methods are so simple to implement.”
At almost every plastics processing or transportation facility Gordon toured in California, she witnessed “big piles of pellets and powders sitting underneath each valve of a rail — knowing that the wind and rain will soon wash these materials into a nearby storm drain or directly into a local waterway,” she said, adding that “it was evidence of either a basic lack of understanding or caring about the environmental impacts of microplastics by facility operators.”
In South Carolina, environmental groups Charleston Waterkeeper and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League have filed a lawsuit against warehouse provider Frontier Logistics because of alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act due to discharge of plastic pellets into the Cooper River while transloading at Union Pier in Charleston.
The groups filed the lawsuit in March before the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina in Charleston. They say that Waterkeeper has been conducting sampling since July 2019, collecting more than 14,000 pellets in area waters, with the highest concentrations located close to Frontier’s facility.
“Coastal estuaries, such as Charleston Harbor, provide ecosystem services that are economically and ecologically indispensable. Often called nurseries of the sea, coastal estuaries are critical nesting and feeding habitats for many aquatic plants and animals, including most of the fish and shellfish eaten in the United States,” the groups said in a March court filing. The groups said they filed the lawsuit after they said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control didn’t take appropriate action.
They continued, “The ingestion of microplastics has been demonstrated in several estuarine species, including grass shrimp, shore crabs, oysters and clams. Laboratory studies have shown increased mortality in grass shrimp and larval fish, changes in oxygen consumption in shore crabs, and declines in reproduction in oysters and zooplankton from exposure to microplastics. Frontier’s releases of plastic pellets into the Cooper River, just upstream from Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, and onto surrounding land endanger vital ecosystems and the organisms that rely on them for survival.”
Frontier didn’t respond to a request for comment, but it denied the allegations in court documents.
“Frontier’s operations at the facility comply with all best management practices (BMPs) relevant to the handling and distribution of production pellets. As such, any discharges of production pellets from the facility into the environment (which are denied) occurred despite Frontier’s adherence to BMPs,” Frontier replied in April.
The company also said a new inland facility is currently under construction to replace the facility at issue at the port, and so “any discharges into navigable waters under the CWA (which are denied) will no longer occur after completion of the new facility.”
In a July court filing, Frontier said pellets found in the area could also be from other plastic distribution facilities. The size, shape and color of some of the pellets that Frontier found during a weeklong company cleanup looked different from the pellet type that Frontier handles, Frontier’s attorneys said.
The lawsuit is ongoing.