Program to prevent plastic pellet pollution criticized as ineffective

plastic pellets that have fallen from a container

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and Plastics Industry Association (PIA) have announced a new program to help manage and prevent the accidental release of pre-production plastic pellets, sometimes called “nurdles,”  into the environment, but an environmental group says it does not go far enough.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes nurdles as plastic beads about one-fifth of an inch in diameter and says they are widely used in manufacturing.

The ACC/PIA program, called OCS Blue, requires companies “to report unrecovered releases greater than 0.5 liters or 0.5 kilograms. Reported releases will then be aggregated and publicly reported annually.”

OCS Blue is an enhancement of a 25-year-old program called Operation Clean Sweep.

Steve Russell, vice president of ACC’s Plastics Division said, “In 2018, all members of ACC’s Plastics Division committed to implement OCS Blue across their U.S. facilities by the end of 2020. Not only are they on track to meet these commitments, but they’re raising the bar as they go. We hope all companies that make, use, transport or handle plastic pellets join us in implementing OCS and OCS Blue.”

Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of the Berkeley, California-based environmental group As You Sow, said “Some transparency is better than no disclosure.”

But he said the policy announced by ACC and PIA “falls short of the individual company disclosure needed for corporate accountability for this growing threat to oceans and already agreed to by ExxonMobil Chemical, ChevronPhillips Chemical and Dow, due to our efforts.”

MacKerron says not much is known about where spills occur. Some European nongovernmental organizations and activists have found them near transportation terminals.

He said his organization initially asked plastic producers to disclose what was happening on their own property but has since come to realize “they were not including transportation and so we are realizing we should go back to companies and discuss their ability or willingness to talk to their transportation supply chain and gather that information and include that as part of this disclosure.”

MacKerron says under the Clean Water Act, spills of pellets are supposed to be disclosed.

He said there have been several well-publicized spills of plastic.

The Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation said in a March 14, 2019, press release that

 24 million nurdles have been washed ashore on the beaches of the Wadden Sea Islands and along dikes among the coast of the Netherlands. It said Dutch researchers at University of Groningen had found pellets came from containers falling overboard from the freighter MSC Zoe in early 2019.

Formosa Plastics on Dec. 6, 2019, entered into a $50 million settlement over spills at its manufacturing facility in Point Comfort, Texas, which is near the Gulf Coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represented San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, the plaintiff in the suit, said it was the largest ever settlement of a Clean Water Act suit brought by private individuals.

Diane Wilson, the executive director of the waterkeeper group, said the focus of that lawsuit was the release of plastic powder and pellets from the manufacturing process that eventually get washed into the surrounding waterways — Lavaca Bay and Cox Creek.

But she said material lost during storage or transportation is also a concern.

Nurdles are tiny, she noted. She says one pound contains 22,000 of the plastic pellets. A 40-foot container holding 25 tons of the pellets would have over 1 billion nurdles.

A 2012 paper titled “Plastics in the Marine Environment: The Dark Side of a Modern Gift

by Jort Hammer, Michiel H.S. Kraak and John R. Parsons said, “In the USA, approximately 27 million tons of nurdles are produced annually, which constitute 1.35 quadrillion granules … . These preproduction nurdles can be subjected to different manufacturing processes to produce different products.”

As You Sow said the settlement with Formosa, “demonstrates the financial risks to companies and their investors from poor handling practices and the need for individual corporate accountability. We will continue to press individual companies on disclosure and have planned shareholder proposals against more companies for 2020.”

As You Sow said pellet spills are believed to be the second largest source of microplastic pollution in the ocean.

MacKerron said Operation Clean Sweep has created a series of best practices to prevent spills of plastic pellets, flake and powder. That guidance includes sections on transportation and packaging.

“There are a whole bunch of best practices out there. The question is how many companies and their transport partners are actually following them, how many have implemented them,” he said.

He says there has been a lack of transparency by the Operation Clean Sweep program, including what plastic spills had happened and how they were cleaned up,

“It’s very early days in terms of disclosure,” he said.

MacKerron said that in addition to concerns about plastic pellet spills at manufacturing locations and in transit, his organization has concerns about spills at end users such as injection molders.

In 2018, the EPA reached settlements with two Southern California plastics manufacturers over federal Clean Water Act violations.

The companies agreed to take steps to prevent plastic materials they manage from washing into local waterways.

Modern Concepts, which paid a $12,000 penalty, stored pre-production nurdles at its facility as part of its plastic products manufacturing process. 

EPA said its “inspectors observed spilled plastic pellets on paved surfaces throughout the facility, which is located near Compton Creek, a tributary of the Los Angeles River. EPA also found the facility lacked pollution prevention equipment and used inadequate cardboard storage boxes, which exposed the pellets to rain and wind.”

Double R Trading Inc., which paid a penalty of $23,326, operated a recycling plant that ground plastic material into flakes that were ultimately exported to China. EPA inspectors “observed large amounts of exposed plastic materials and fragments spilled on paved surfaces throughout the facility” which “did not have necessary containment systems to trap plastic material and prevent releases to a waterway that flows into the Port of Los Angeles.”