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Plastic Soup Foundation takes legal action against structural plastic pollution
AMSTERDAM, January 16, 2020 – The estimated 24 million plastic granules which washed ashore on the Dutch coast as a result of MSC Zoe’s cargo spillage are a fraction of the unimaginable quantities of plastic pellets that are “spilled” into the environment by the plastics industry on a daily basis. Every year, more than 8 trillion of these microplastics – 23 billion granules a day – end up in the environment within the European Union.
The Plastic Soup Foundation is very concerned about the consequences of these plastic pellet leaks for people, animals, and the environment. Maria Westerbos, the director of the Plastic Soup Foundation stipulates that “if you want to come to terms with the number of spilled granules in Europe, you have to convert the amount to how much is lost per second. You’re talking about more than 265,000 pellets per second. That’s a heavy hailstorm of plastic!”
Heavily polluted locations in Rotterdam, Limburg, and Antwerp
Michiel Princen and Robert Möhring, researchers at the Plastic Soup Foundation, visited the factories of major international plastic producers at the Chemelot industrial estate in South Limburg and in the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp. Producers such as Sabic, Ineos, BASF, Borealis, Covestro, and Ducor Petrochemicals are located in these areas. The port of Antwerp is the largest hub of plastic production in Europe. The enormous amounts of freshly produced plastic granules found by the researchers were recorded, and samples were taken as evidence. According to Princen, over the course of the investigation “[they] walked on what seemed to be carpets made of plastic pellets several times”.
The researchers concluded that the pollution caused by plastic producers in The Netherlands and in Flanders during the production process is completely out of control. “The voluntary code of conduct within the plastics industry, Ocean Clean Sweep, is free from obligation and is by no means sufficient to solve this problem”, says Princen. “The large-scale and structural nature of the pollution indicates that supervision and effective enforcement have been lacking for a long time. Existing environmental laws are insufficiently applied to tackle and prevent the leakage of plastic granules into the environment”.
Request for enforcement
This week, the Plastic Soup Foundation is the first organization in Europe to take legal steps in order to stop plastic pellet pollution. Via environmental lawyers Rogier Hörchner and Faton Bajrami, an enforcement request has been submitted to DCMR, the joint environmental department of the province of South Holland and fifteen municipalities in the Rijnmond region. One of the purposes of the request is to force the Rotterdam plastic producer Ducor Petrochemicals to clean up and keep the surroundings of the company premises clean. There are tens of millions of plastic pellets on banks in the immediate vicinity of Ducor Petrochemicals.
Because approximately half of the plastic produced does not float in water, the enforcement request has also asked that the river silt in the port of Rotterdam be investigated for plastic pollution.
“This is only the first in a series of forthcoming enforcement requests. We will do this more often, and force the government to do its job, through the courts if necessary”, says Westerbos. “But we’ll start with Rotterdam, the location closest to our own North Sea”.
Ducor and DCMR have been aware of the plastic leakage for some time. Nothing has been cleaned up so far, and even at the company gates, pellet pollution is abundant.
A silent disaster
The consequences of the pollution are not limited to the production sites. Via through roads, the sewage system, and rivers, the plastic granules spread like an oil slick throughout the seas and oceans, where cleaning them up becomes impossible. “Around the world, millions of these pellets wash ashore on banks and beaches. That is the silent disaster that is going on”, says Westerbos. Birds and sea creatures that see these pellets as foods sustain internal injuries, grow slower, and even starve to death because their stomachs are full of plastic. Plastic pellets have also been shown to attract chemicals, making them a poisonous pill for the animals that eat them. Over time, the granules fragment into even smaller microplastics and end up in our drinking water, our food, and the air we breathe; all with possible consequences for human health.
Plastic in Natura 2000 areas
Early research as part of the Schone Rivieren-project (the Clean Rivers project), in which the Plastic Soup Foundation participates, demonstrated that plastic granules were found at almost half of the 200 measured locations along the Maas and Waal rivers. Additional research shows that the banks of the Westerschelde estuary and the Grensmaas, both protected Natura 2000 areas, are dotted with thousands of plastic granules per square meter. In Zeeland, traces of the many plastic producers based in the port of Antwerp have been found everywhere on the banks of the Westerschelde estuary.
Westerbos calls on the European Commission to “really start protecting these natural areas in accordance with the European Habitat Directive. Our confidence in the industry’s ability to resolve this issue itself is now definitely over. We need for the government to come up with clear rules and stringent consequences”.
US plastics industry condemned
In the United States, too, organisations such as the Plastic Soup Foundation and private individuals have pursued legal action and have been successful. In 2019, a plastic manufacturer and a major distributor were sued for large-scale contamination caused by plastic granules: Formosa Plastics in Texas and Frontier Logistics in South Carolina.
In Texas, it was Diane Wilson, a retired shrimp boat captain, saw her environment become increasingly polluted with plastic pellets and collected structural evidence of this fact. She took her case to court and was proven right. In the judgment, Formosa Plastics was referred to as a “serial offender”. The manufacturer agreed to a fifty-million-dollar settlement and start to repair the damage of years of illegally dumping billions of plastic granules into Lavaca Bay and other waterways.
The company has additionally made a so-called “zero-discharge” promise: it will not allow any nurdles from the production process to leak into the environment in the future and will clean up any pollution caused.
The Plastic Soup Foundation hopes for similar results in The Netherlands and the rest of Europe and is working together with Break Free From Plastic and The Great Nurdle Hunt.
The plastic granules, also referred to as nurdles, are pieces of plastic granulate which are a semi-finished product used in the manufacture of all kinds of plastic products, from toothbrushes to soda bottles. The granules are cheap — that’s one reason why the plastics industry is so careless about their transport and transshipment. In addition, individual granules are small and light: production processes, therefore, must be airtight. The only approach is a 100% comprehensive source approach.
A report from the trade association Plastics Europe and the port of Antwerp provides a telling reflection of the spilled number of pellets. The report shows that over the course of 2018, the port authority has cleaned up no less than 3.3 tons of plastic granules at just five different hotspots. With 50,000 grains going into a kilo, that means 165 million grains were cleared in those five hotspots alone — seven times the amount washed ashore from the MSC Zoe.
More information about the locations investigated and images of the pollution found can be viewed in the presentation below.