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Acute Plastic Pollution: causes, problems and solutions

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In 2020, the Motor Vessel Trans Carrier, a cargo ship sailing from the Netherlands to Norway, lost 13.2 tons of plastic pellets. As a result, part of the coastlines of both Norway and Sweden were polluted by plastic pellets. This posed a number of problems and raised questions with the national governments: what is acute plastic pollution, how to deal with this form of plastic pollution effectively and can it be prevented? Those are the reasons why the Nordic Council of Ministers initiated the research presented in this report. In order to determine an effective approach, interviews were held and literature was reviewed, evaluating laws, policies and four maritime incidents where pellets were lost.

In this report Acute Plastic Pollution (APP) is defined as “pollution caused by the sudden and unexpected release of a large amount of small plastic items that requires immediate response to protect human health and/or the environment”. The loss of plastic pellets presents a unique challenge, particularly when the loss is catastrophic. It is estimated that globally 230,000 tonnes of pellets enter the environment annually. The actual figure is not known. When spilled, there is no easy way of cleaning-up pellet pollution from the environment, the challenge is significant as no “one size fits all” solution exists. Mitigation and ultimately prevention is key. Prevention starts with addressing the value chain of plastics, by ensuring to significantly limit losses during production and transportation of pellets and during their application for the production of plastic end products. Neither the current legislation for more secure stowage of containers on container ships transporting large amounts of pellets, nor technical measures are sufficient to prevent loss of small plastic items like pellets. At national or regional sea basin level, there are no general contingency plans present for addressing acute plastic spills and their environmental and economic impact. Plastic pellets are not currently labelled as a “hazardous substance”, either internationally, regionally, at EU-level, or nationally in the Nordic countries. As a result, they are not included in nor addressed by most existing legislation apart from a few national examples. Political lobby is needed to change this.

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