The issue

Plastic pellet loss: what are the impacts and possible actions?


the issue - beach

The marine litter issue

There is a growing concern about the presence of plastics in the environment. Plastic litter could end up in soils, waterways and eventually the ocean, contributing to global pollution. The majority of plastics pollution is caused by mismanaged waste. There is also an increased interest in how microplastics contribute to this environmental issue. Marine scientists have reported more frequently that birds, turtles and fish ingest a wide variety of plastic objects which can be harmful to their health or even fatal. The vast majority of this waste (80%) originates from land. Most of these items are debris of used consumer goods, potentially carelessly thrown away or non-intentionally lost.

Plastics do not belong in our environment, our food or our drinking water. To tackle this, we need appropriate waste management infrastructures, ongoing investments in innovations, and openly engage with our stakeholders. It requires all value chain actors, including manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, recyclers, as well as policy makers, to work together on delivering the necessary behavioural and systemic changes. Plastics are essential to our future. Our commitment as an industry is to relentlessly focus on ensuring that plastics continue to deliver much needed societal benefits without having a negative impact on the environment or health. This includes supporting the European Union’s Green Deal ambitions – our collective blueprint for accelerating our transformation to a more sustainable future. We are determined to implement long-lasting positive change.


Plastic pellets: a raw material not to be wasted

Part of this litter, however, consists of pellets meant to be manufactured into plastic products. While consumers are responsible for the proper disposal of used products, the plastics industry must, for its part, ensure containment of the products it handles, namely the plastic pellets, flakes and powders. Operation Clean Sweep® (OCS) is specifically aimed to prevent discharge into water flows and to the marine environment.

Whilst high environmental, safety and quality management controls are applied throughout the plastics industry, unintentional loss of pellets can occur at different stages along the value chain. Spills which occur in closed areas with no possible route into the environment will be contained. However, when spillages occur outside of a closed area, pellets may end up being washed down drains and into waterways before eventually flowing into the ocean. This can lead to severe environmental and social impacts. It is therefore important for all workers handling pellets to be trained to quickly react and take the appropriate measures in order to contain these spills. Pellets loading and unloading operations account for the highest risk of loss at all stages of the value chain.








Sources of pellet spills

route for pellets

The typical route for pellets starts at a production facility. Pellets are then packaged either for storage or for transportation to plastics converters or other customers e.g. via logistics hubs. The type of packaging must be carefully selected based on customer needs, mode of transport and compliance with safety requirements in accordance with industry standards (e.g. food and healthcare requirements). There are four main types of packaging used: 25 kg bags stacked on pallets, octabins (large carton boxes), “big bags” (large plastic bags), containers or silos.

Pellets can be transported between different actors along the value chain mainly by road, rail or sea. Converters then receive the pellets in either of the packaging types described above. The pellets are fed into heat extruders or injection moulding machines, to be melted and formed into parts, pipes or other finished goods. In some cases, pellets are not directly sold to converters by the producers. Trading companies and distributors may buy pellets in large quantities and store them in warehouses for re-sale in smaller quantities to converters. During mechanical recycling of plastic goods, most plastic waste is transformed into similar raw materials such as pellets or flakes. These materials will follow the same cycle.


A challenge for the plastics industry

OCS provides solutions to prevent pellets ending up in the environment. This programme is good for the environment, for the safety of employees and for business in general. 

  • Constant vigilance: Plastic pellets are not household waste. Their management and disposal are neither under the responsibility of consumers, nor of public authorities. They are raw materials. Their containment outside natural habitats falls almost exclusively under the vigilance of manufacturers and operators in the supply chain.
  • Credibility at stake: Operation Clean Sweep® fully meets the commitments made by world leaders in the plastics industry in the “Joint declaration for solutions to the problem of marine litter” signed in 2011, during the 5th International Conference on Marine Debris, Honolulu. The “stewardship of the transport and distribution of plastic resin pellets and products from supplier to customer to prevent product loss and the encouragement of our customers to do the same” are explicitly listed among the six major goals of the statement.

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