Ducor Petrochemicals was initially shocked by the fact that the company was ‘publicly pilloried’, as it said itself. But Managing Director Ann Geens quickly examined her own conscience and expressed great appreciation for having been made aware of the nurdle pollution. About Plastic Soup Foundation she said: “The organisation has done a good deed as it is a major problem and there is no law covering it.” 

What she meant by this is that while chemical pollution is covered by law, there are no standards governing plastic pollution. In its defence, Ducor argued that plastic is an end product and not waste. However, this argument contravenes the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive in which plastic granules do fall under the term ‘marine litter’. Furthermore, nurdle pollution is high on the agenda of the OSPAR committee made up of fifteen countries in the north east Atlantic area. 

While Ducor admits its role, it does not take full responsibility, declaring that it is not the only one to have caused the plastic pollution. Not only were polypropylene granules found, but also those made of polyethylene, which Ducor itself does not produce. 

It also points to ‘historic pollution’ that pre-dates the presence of Ducor in Rotterdam. Ann Geens does say that Plastic Soup Foundation is right in stating that the historic pollution also needs to be cleaned up, but says that this should be done jointly with other manufacturers. 

Large-scale clean up

After the fine of EUR 15,000 for every violation, it was not a question of ‘if’ Ducor would clean up the two harbours, but ‘when’. The company started this difficult job in Londenhaven dock on Tuesday, 21 April 2020. The clean up was commissioned to Hebo Maritiemservice by the Port Authority of Rotterdam who worked with a team from Ducor Petrochemicals. 

Hebo used a special suction unit on a pontoon to suck up the plastic granules from among the blocks of basalt on the banks of Londenhaven dockThe large litter was removed by hand by a team from Ducor.  

At the end of the clean up, the Port Authority of Rotterdam reported that four full big one cubic metre bags of plastic granules had been collected. This equates to 4,000 litres of plastic granules! There were also 17 big bags full of large plastics. This is a huge amount in a relatively small area. Plastic Soup Foundation was present that day too and saw Ducor’s management and personnel who were present respond with shock at what was found. 

In February 2021, the environmental agency DCMR informed Ducor that the imposed fine would be lifted, as the agency was satisfied with the company’s measures. Plastic Soup Foundation is also pleased with Ducor’s efforts and has agreed to lift the penalty. Ann Geens writes on the Ducor website: “The criticism we received at the time was justified, and we have taken our responsibility. And we will continue to do so. […] But we, as Ducor, are not the only party that has to deal with pellet loss. We have to take it up broadly as a whole chain, from manufacturer to transporter and processor. I will continue to be committed to that.”

Preventive measures and consultation

Ducor also took various preventive measures to avoid nurdles escaping from the factory grounds into the environment in the future. Filters were placed on the rainfall drains, manhole covers and the conduits to Brittanniëhaven dock; a small wall was placed around the premises; a net was run around the storage silos; longer feeder tubes were acquired to avoid spilling nurdles when filling the lorries which can then be sprayed clean to prevent plastic granules from landing on public roads; and, cleaning the premises and workspaces regularly. 

To reach ‘broad joint action’, on 29 September 2020, Ducor held a round table conference with other plastics manufacturers and Plastic Soup Foundation to discuss what action needs to be taken. Ann Geens says that she regrets only having responded when called upon and called on everyone to act proactively. She also acknowledged that everyone in the sector had been ‘industry blind’ to the plastic granules that had been spilled everywhere. 

As our famous Dutch football player Johan Cruijff said, “You will only see it when you get it”. 

The roundtable conference led to establishing the Clean Sweep Rotterdam Taskforce by the end of February 2021. In it, various plastics producers are working together with the Port of Rotterdam Authority, Ducor Petrochemicals, PlasticsEurope Nederland, DCMR, and Rijkswaterstaat with the goal of “countering pollution from plastic granules, powders, and flakes in the port of Rotterdam. The intention is that as many companies and organizations as possible join the task force.

Power to the shareholder

Referring to Cruijff once more, those who seem to be ‘getting it’ more and more are the shareholders. In April 2021, a whopping 81.2% of investors at DuPont supported a shareholder resolution by cororate watchdog As You Sow. In it DuPont was asked to report on spills of plastic pellets released into the environment.

“This vote confirms a tidal wave of support by investors to confront a deadly contributor to the global plastic pollution crisis,” according to As You Sow. And according to the Sustainable Investments Institute, which tracks shareholder votes, the 81% support for the resolution is “the highest vote ever for a shareholder resolution on an environmental issue that was opposed by management.”

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