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The European Commission and Pellet Loss


Amsterdam, January 24, 2018
— Everyday, four shipping containers spill into the sea worldwide. Sometimes, these containers are filled with pellets: oval-shaped plastic granules about a half centimeter wide that constitute the raw material that is needed to produce plastic objects. These pellets are transported all over the world. 

Last year, on October 10th, there was a violent storm. In the port of Durban, a container ship collided with another ship. Two containers, each filled with 990 bags of polyethylene pellets, were severely damaged. A large portion of the pellets ended up in the sea. Millions of pellets washed up on the beaches of Durban as a result. The owner of the containership did not acknowledge any liability; he placed the blame on the extreme weather circumstances. 

Now, more than three months later, volunteers are still cleaning up the washed-up pellets. This is almost impossible because the small grains are now not only widely distributed, but they are often difficult to distinguish from shells. 

Pellet loss contributes to the plastic soup considerably. The European Commission announced measures against pellet loss as part of its Plastic Strategy earlier this month. Plastic pellet spills are not only of concern during the transportation phase; pellets may leak into the environment during the production and processing phases as well. 

What measures exactly the commission has in mind are not included. In fact, only one measure is imaginable to prevent a disaster such as Durban; prohibit the intercontinental sea transport of pellets. 

Photo: Lisa Guastalla. Pellets found in Durban, South Africa, last Saturday

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Plastic Strategy: The European Commission’s Vision for Plastic

Amsterdam, January 17, 2018 — In the spirit of turning challenges into chances, the European Commission presented its Plastic Strategy yesterday. The European Union (EU) wants nothing less than to create a “new plastic economy”. The dilemma was put into words by Commissioner Frans Timmermans in his presentation to the European Parliament: “We can no longer live without plastic, but that very same plastic can be deadly”.

In order to find a solution to this dilemma, the EU wants to drastically reform the plastic industry. On the production side, new demands to make plastic more recyclable are arising. In 2030, all plastic must be either highly reusable or easily recyclable. The focus on recycling lies especially with C02 profit, which is in line with the climate accord that was agreed upon in Paris in 2015.

What does the EU hope to do about the increasing plastic pollution in the environment? A tax on single-use plastic is being considered, and container-deposit systems are also being heavily simulated. The possibility of an overall ban on microplastics in cosmetics is furthermore being researched. The plans, however, strongly rely on voluntary participation from the industry. 

The Plastic Strategy undeniably offers a framework through which to drastically take on plastic pollution. Whether or not this will happen in practice remains yet to be seen. Firstly, there is the relatively unambitious deadline of 2030. Between now and then, plastic production will increase enormously. The plans to place a tax on single-use plastic used for packaging are vague, while concrete reduction goals have yet to be formulated.

The EU has presented the plastic Strategy at an opportune moment. As of January 1st, China no longer accepts plastic waste from the EU. Europe must now process its own plastic waste. This creates a large opening for innovations in the recycling industry and gives the momentum needed to introduce necessary measures.

The Commission wants to turn challenges into opportunities. The danger is that the EU sees the combination of economic growth and sustainability through rose-colored glasses. When the focus lies on “better plastic” instead of the drastic reduction of the overall plastic use, the chance of leaks into the environments remains large. 

Vlokreeft (Orchestia Gammarellus)
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Gammarids shred a single plastic bag into 1.75 million pieces

Amsterdam, 12 December 2017 – Plastic bags gradually disintegrate in the marine environment as the result of the effects of sunlight, oxygen and waves. However, it was unknown whether marine organisms accelerate the process by ingesting and secreting plastic. Now it turns out that gammarids (Orchestia gammarellus) appear to do so.

Laboratory research in Great Britain has shown that this amphipod shreds a plastic bag into endless numbers of microscopic pieces with an average diameter of 488,59 µm. Although this happens with all types of plastic, the fragmentation process is four times faster when the plastic has accumulated a biofilm. A gammarid produces over 8 fragments a day. Research on the shoreline confirms the presence of such fragments in and around this creature’s excrement. A study into gammarids, which inhabit the shores of northern and western Europe, was carried out by the University of Plymouth and published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, Professor Richard Thompson says, ‘An estimated 120 million tonnes of single-use plastic items – such as carrier bags – are produced each year. This research shows species might also be contributing to the spread of such debris.’  See the university’s press release.

Research had already shown that the northern fulmar grinds plastic in its stomach and secretes it as tiny microplastics. This means there are more species which accelerate the tempo in which plastic becomes fragmented into miniscule pieces.

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New measurement method: many more microplastics in sea than thought

Amsterdam, 2 December 2017 – British researchers have developed a cost-effective method of detecting and counting microplastics in water. They add a fluorescent dye that binds to plastic particles, making them easy to see with a microscope. The method clearly shows that there is much more microplastics in the top layer of sea water than previously thought. The research is published in Environmental Science & Technology.

It has been known for a while that there is more microplastics (< 5 mm) in the top layer of water than larger pieces. The current measurement methods however, were unable to determine the proportion of microplastics smaller than 1 mm. The new method can do this, and the results show that it is precisely the smallest plastics (20 to 1000 μm) that form the largest proportion of plastics in the sea. It has already been argued that much less plastic is found in sea than that enters the sea. The question is where all that plastic is, and up to now there has not been a satisfactory answer. The researchers say that their method helps explain that much of the ‘lost’ plastic has become so small that the measurement methods used to date simply overlooked them.

Plastics in the environment degrade into ever smaller pieces. As the pieces become smaller, the number of pieces increases exponentially. That proportionately there are many more tiny plastic particles in water is confirmed by this method. The researchers also point out that the smaller the plastic particles, the higher the number of organisms that ingest them.

The method detects lightweight plastics (polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene and nylon-6) best. These plastics are mostly used for packaging that is thrown away after use and nylon-6 comes from machine washed synthetic clothing.

Screenshot of the My Little Plastic Footprint commercial
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Softlaunch My Little Plastic Footprint

 

Alicante, 18 October 2017 – Our long awaited app, My Little Plastic Footprint, had its soft launch this morning. The launch took place during the very first Ocean Summit of the 13th Volvo Ocean Race which starts in Alicante, Spain. This app allows people anywhere in the world to reduce their plastic footprint and learn more about the plastic soup in the oceans.

The plastic soup is growing and everybody contributes to it – citizens, companies and governments. Of all the plastic that we use, we throw 40% away within twenty minutes. Of this, 3% ultimately ends up in the water. This can change. It has to change!

My Little Plastic Footprint offers an interactive platform where you can do something about the plastic soup in the ocean. You could explore the issue and test your knowledge in a quiz. You can also reduce your own ‘footprint’ by making pledges and sharing them with your friends and contacts on social media. Examples of pledges could be:

  • I will not use plastic straws anymore;
  • I will not accept any plastic bags in shops anymore.
Features of the app

Some screens of My Little Plastic Footprint

 

The app starts with 60 pledges. The number will grow over time. The smaller your plastic footprint becomes, the bigger your chance to be nominated as Ocean Champion.

In the third part of the app, you can be inspired by Ocean Heroes, celebrities who take action against plastic pollution. See the Ocean Heroes by downloading the app or by going to mylittleplasticfootprint.org.

We would like to ask you, our followers, to test this first version of the app.

Help us reduce humanity’s plastic footprint.

We have six weeks in which to remove any bugs and errors, and we can only do this with your help.

Will you help us? The app is available at the App Store and via Google Play. For more information about the app, check out www.mylittleplasticfootprint.org.

The app is built by: the Plastic Soup Foundation in the Netherlands, EA in Switzerland, Smäll in Barcelona and the Ocean Recovery Alliance in Hong Kong.