Balancing the plastic see-saw

23 May 2024

Balancing the plastic see-saw

David Campion and Samuel Durrance 

Paper presented at International Oil Spill Conference (IOSC), Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, New Orleans, Louisiana New Orleans 13-16 May 2024 

Globally, plastics are a widespread consumer product and, due to inappropriate disposal and accidental losses, are now found ubiquitously in the marine environment. Recently, however, there has been a growing interest in plastic pellets, or nurdles, following a spate of losses from shipping vessels during transshipment. Over the last five years, ITOPF has been heavily involved in five spills of plastic pellets, including incidents in Sri Lanka, South Africa and Spain.

Due to their size and mobility, once lost, plastic pellets can spread extensively and rapidly become buried and mixed with sediments, natural debris and other plastics on the shoreline. Past experience has shown that subsequent clean-up operations are laborious, protracted and costly.

The goal of pollution response is to reduce potential damage to sensitive environmental or economic receptors, and to enable the continuance of normal functions. Responders have long recognised the importance of retaining a holistic sense of this goal, systematically balancing the impact of response operations against the potential damage caused by a pollutant. As such, with an increasing focus on the climate change agenda, broader environmental consequences such as greenhouse gasses may need to be considered during the assessment process.

Utilizing data from three plastic pellets spills in South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Spain, life cycle analysis was carried out to look at plastic spills through the lens of the climate change agenda. This paper proposes that more consideration could be given to ensure that the balance is correct for ship-source plastic pellet pollution, and alternative strategies are discussed which could maximise the overall environmental benefit and minimize greenhouse gases emitted during a response.

Results of this study indicate that overtime, the efficiency of focusing on the recovery of plastic pellets diminishes greatly over time and emissions per kilogram of collected waste significantly increase. Pilot studies carried out in South Africa demonstrated that the collection of other background plastics can offer a more efficient solution to the recovery of plastic pellets and mitigating potential environmental impacts. The conclusions of this paper offer considerations for relevant stakeholders involved in post plastic pellet spill clean-ups and may provide value when deciding clean-up strategies.

Categories: Other, HNS, Papers