In May this year, the cargo ship X-Press Pearl spilt 1,680 tonnes of plastic pellets, 9,700 tonnes of other plastics and other toxic chemicals off the East coast of Sri Lanka.
With plastic accumulating on beaches up to two meters deep, severely polluting 750km of pristine, biodiverse coastline, it is one of the worst marine environmental disasters in the country’s history and the single largest plastic pellet pollution event the world has ever seen.
The spill continues to cause overwhelming economic, social, and environmental impacts and is leaving a legacy of toxic pollution that will continue to have profound and enduring impacts for many generations to come.
Plastic pellets (also known as nurdles) are tiny lentil-sized disks measuring 5mm or less. They are the feedstock of the plastics industry, melted and moulded by manufacturing companies into plastic products.
But given their small size, they are easily and often lost to the environment at each stage along the pellet supply chain. Increasingly, however, acute and large-scale spillage events are occurring at sea.
Despite being found on almost every coastline surveyed – and with growing evidence that pellets act as toxic sponges and are eaten by a wide range of marine life – they are currently not considered to be persistent, hazardous pollutants.
Stricter classification under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) code which covers the movement ‘dangerous’ goods would mean pellets are handled at sea in a manner akin to other hazardous substances. It would also mean many handling, labelling and below-deck stowage instructions would be enforced, as well as adequate disaster response protocols that would limit the fallout in the wake of future shipping disasters.
From 22-25 November, the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) will meet. On the agenda is a proposal from Sri Lanka to establish international guidelines and requirements for the transportation of plastic pellets that are so urgently needed.
Despite the major impact of plastic pollution from ships from a range of sources beyond these single catastrophic events, plastic has repeatedly dropped off the agenda of recent MEPC meetings due to the pressures of other environmental topics and a lack of clear strategy as to how the IMO wants to deliver on its plans.
EIA has collaborated with the other environmental groups at IMO to submit recommendations for priority actions the IMO should be taking and are putting pressure on states to ensure these are discussed.
Time is running out for our oceans and the delay tactics are contributing to major incidents which are harming the marine environment and coastal livelihoods. EIA has joined with local NGOs in Sri Lanka to petition the IMO to act on pellets and accelerate progress on the IMO action plan on marine litter.