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January 11, 2024

From the overuse of plastic to pellets on the beach

Plastics on the beach [archive]. © OCEANA / Silvia García


The countless tiny pellets that are washing up on shores across northern Spain in recent days is yet another fallout of the overuse of plastic. The true crux of the political debate here lies not in which government should take responsibility for the clean-up, but rather in urgently adopting and enforcing regulations to cut down on plastic manufacturing and consumption.

Pellet losses are a major source of microplastic pollution, and the EU is currently working on regulation to address them. Currently, hundreds of shipping containers are lost at sea every year, an issue that adds on to the rampant dumping of marine litter.

Out of the containers that fell off the Toconao, it was the one packed with plastic pellets that has raised public alarm after millions of these nurdles washed up on the coast. Yet the vast majority of plastic polluting the sea is unseen, and once it reaches certain depths, the costs of clean-ups it are prohibitive, according to Oceana’s research. There is also a lack of the right technology to recover this litter in many cases.

Cut back on packaging to reduce plastic waste on beaches

A first step towards protecting the environment would be to move shipping containers transporting the pellets used to make plastic products into a different position on the ship where they are unable to fall into the sea. But the problem is much bigger than the simple repositioning of containers. Plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely, because polymers degrade after each cycle and new material has to be fed into the system.

Moreover, the vast majority of plastic is derived from hydrocarbons, which means that growing consumption keeps the wheels (and the dangers) of oil and gas drilling turning. The average EU citizen generated 35.9 kg of plastic packaging waste in 2021, 27% more than a decade earlier. As we move towards the energy transition, other commercial outlets for hydrocarbons must be curbed.

Efforts by volunteers and governments to clean up the nurdles that are washing up on beaches illustrate that reducing plastic overuse is the most effective approach: eliminate single-use products, opt for reduce and reuse. In Europe, 39% of plastic is converted into packaging, making packaging its primary use, ahead of construction, the automotive industry and other sectors.

The EU now has the opportunity to do just that through the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, which is now well on its way to becoming law and will be directly applicable to EU Member States. And at a global level, the future treaty against plastic pollution will be another tremendous opportunity that we need to seize.