There’s a plastic pollution crisis that’s more insidious than littered water bottles, candy wrappers and disposable vapes. And, for the moment, it’s no one’s responsibility.
Plastic pellets — raw plastic beads that are melted down to make new products — have been washing up on beaches across Europe for years, wreaking havoc on the environment and endangering marine life.
But the source of the pollution, which can result from nearby industrial plants or spillages from container ships at sea, is notoriously hard to pinpoint — making it near impossible to determine who is legally responsible and who should pay for the clean-up.
The Belgian town of Ecaussinnes, which houses a Total Energies plant, has been plagued by the tiny plastic pebbles for more than 10 years. A beach in Tarragona, Spain — which also hosts a petrochemical complex — has struggled with the issue for decades. Local residents regularly head out to painstakingly remove the pellets from the environment.
What has already been a years-long battle in some regions was thrust into the spotlight last month, after a ship spillage in the Atlantic sparked a fresh ecological, and political, emergency in the north of Spain.
Conservative politicians were quick to downplay the scandal, and accused their opponents of trying to leverage the issue ahead of regional elections. But environmentalists insist urgent action is needed — and warn the Spanish case is far from an isolated incident. In Brussels, EU policymakers are now pointing to the incident in a debate over how to limit the damage.
“It happens way too much,” said Green lawmaker Ska Keller, who’s working on new EU legislation that aims to tackle the phenomenon. “I mean, [the Spanish crisis] is one incident, but there’s so many more.”
Plastic pellet spills are unnervingly frequent: In 2020, a major spill saw 10 tons of pellets released into the North Sea, with millions showing up on the coastlines of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
Another spill just above the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog wreaked havoc on marine organisms in the North Sea and the Wadden Sea. And in 2022, hundreds of thousands of white plastic pellets of unknown origin began washing up on beaches in France and Spain.
But difficulties in tracing the origin of the pollution mean there is nowhere to (legally) point the finger, allowing companies to evade responsibility.
“When it comes to due diligence and responsibility, I think that one of the issues is that it is difficult to prove where [the pellets are] coming from directly,” said Amy Youngman, a legal and policy specialist at the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“Even when you have spills right outside of the installations that are happening, say in Brussels or anywhere around the world, it’s often [that] there’s some deniability that happens there,” added Youngman. “There’s not a lot of strict regulations or laws right now. That’s probably why they’re having a difficult time showing that the harm is coming directly from there.”
In Spain’s Tarragona, for example, the prosecutor’s office has just opened a third investigation to determine the criminal liability for the pellet pollution blighting the beaches — after previous inquiries failed to bear fruit. In the meantime, it’s up to local NGOs and residents to regularly, manually sieve the sand in their never-ending task to rid the coast of the tiny plastic balls.
While the effect of microplastics on human health remains unclear, studies have demonstrated their harmful impacts on marine life. Experiments on cells and animals have also shown some toxic effects, including DNA damage and organ dysfunction.
Researchers have pointed to a polyethylene production site in Stenungsund, Sweden, as another potential source of pellet pollution. Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor of ecotoxicology at the University of Gothenburg, co-authored a 2018 study titled “The unaccountability case of plastic pellet pollution” — which took the Stenungsund example as a case study to “better understand how these pellets end up in the environment.”
What she found was a soup of weak laws failing to hold the polluting culprits to account.
“There were a lot of different permits for different parts of this value chain, where different people can start to point the finger at each other,” she said. “You’re in like these gray zones in between loading/unloading docks — like who’s responsible at that point? Is it the company or the transportation agency?” In addition, the agencies tasked with looking into the pollution “didn’t have the resources or the tools to necessarily do it.”
It’s a similar story in Ecaussines, said Lucie Padovani of Surfrider Foundation Europe, where there’s a “lack of accountability” for the pollution. That means that, for now, it’s the “local authorities and so in the end taxpayers’ money, paying for remedial measures to clean up the environment.”
A new EU law could change all that. The European Commission has proposed new laws imposing requirements for handling the plastic pellets safely and sustainably. Operators of factories that use microplastics would be required to prevent plastic pellet spills, and in the case of a spill would be responsible for clean-up.
MEPs want the law to go even further — especially in light of last month’s Spanish pellet spill. The European Parliament’s environment committee, which is leading work on the file, is slated to vote on the proposal on March 19.
The Parliament’s lead lawmaker, João Albuquerque, has pitched stricter reporting requirements on pellet spills and bigger fines for non-compliant companies.
The increased transparency, says Surfrider’s Padovani, would make it easier to track the pellets — allowing authorities to pinpoint polluting culprits.
A group of politicians from the liberal Renew group also want the Commission to investigate the possibility of compelling companies to add a chemical additive to the pellets, making it even easier to trace the source of a spill. Several lawmakers have introduced new stipulations specific to transporting pellets by sea — something the Commission has said it is open to considering in light of the ongoing pollution crisis in Spain.
Some industry groups are uneasy about the proposals. Germany’s Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, for example, argues that the “companies concerned are already applying extensive measures to prevent the release of plastic pellets.” Center-right and right-wing MEPs, too, have pushed against the more ambitious stipulations put forward by other lawmakers.
The European People’s Party’s Deirdre Clune, who’s also working on the legislation, has cautioned against straying too far from the Commission’s original proposal: A push to slash exemptions for companies, for example, is a “considerable expansion of the scope and does not reflect the outcome of the impact assessment,” she argues.
But NGOs and green-minded politicians hope the Spanish example will move the dial in negotiations, and stress that the EU should lead by example — particularly ahead of upcoming talks on a global plastic treaty aimed at curbing plastic pollution worldwide.
“It’s very important the EU gives a message,” said Renew Europe MEP Catherine Chabaud, a sailor-turned-politician who said she has witnessed marine plastic pollution first-hand for over 30 years. “We can’t be ambitious on the plastic treaty if we are not ambitious on this file.”