Spanish plastic pellet spill galvanises EU efforts to limit microplastic pollution

Spanish plastic pellet spill galvanises EU efforts to limit microplastic pollution

Dramatic pollution along the coast of northwest Spain after a cargo spill has sharpened the debate over an EU bill aimed at preventing precisely this type of microplastic pollution, with MEPs debating on 11 January whether to lower the threshold at which economic operators should be held accountable for the plastic pellets they transport.

The European Parliament’s environment (ENVI) committee discussed its draft report on a European Commission proposal from last October aimed at preventing plastic pellet losses, part of a wider drive to reduce microplastic pollution that has already seen EU lawmakers agree to phase out the intentional addition of tiny plastic particles to products ranging from glitter to toothpaste.

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Local authorities in Galicia, northern Spain, have declared an environmental emergency after millions of tiny plastic pellets – the raw material for producing plastic products, known in the industry as nurdles – began washing up on its shores after a cargo spill, in mid-December, from the Toconao, a Liberia-registered vessel chartered by shipping giant Maersk.

The parliament’s lead negotiator on the new proposal, Portuguese socialist Joāo Albuquerque had proposed even before the estimated 25 tonnes of plastic pellets reached the Galician coast, that companies transporting 250 tonnes or more of the pellets should have to comply with specific monitoring and prevention requirements, potentially impacting far more shippers than the 1,000-tonne threshold in the Commission’s proposal. Not all lawmakers agreed, however.

“This is a considerable expansion of the scope and does not reflect the outcome of the impact assessment,” said German lawmaker Hildegard Bentele of the centre-right European People’s Party. This prompted another S&D group member, Nicolas Casares, who hails from the affected region of Galicia, to call on the EPP to show more “empathy” and urge the group “not to protect those who pollute”.

“By reducing the threshold from 1,000 tonnes to 250 tonnes [we want] to ensure that the updating of risk assessment plans covers a larger number of companies: more updated assessments will help to prevent more spills,» Casares said, noting his group wants to bolster the proposed legislation with an obligation to restore ecosystems affected by spills, covering all means of transport including shipping, and extending the scope of accident prevention plans.

Albuquerque’s report also won approval on the liberal benches, with Renew group MEP Catherine Chabaud broadly supporting Albuquerque’s report, while also drawing attention to “a measurement problem” and stressing the importance of having official figures in place to enable control of the thousands of tonnes of plastic pellets manufactured and transported around Europe.

«What was clear from today’s ENVI committee debate is that reducing the limit from 1,000 tonnes to 250 tonnes is important to reinforce the application of binding prevention measures, contrary to what the European right defends,” Albuquerque told Euronews after the debate.

Natacha Tullis, a specialist in prevention of ocean plastic pollution at the Pew Charitable Trusts, welcomed the draft report and urged MEPs to lower the 250-tonne threshold even further, to ensure measures apply to all operators and carriers, irrespective of the size of the business, the quantity of pellets handled, or the mode of transportation.

“The accident in Spain is a cruel reminder of the lack of traceability and accountability in the plastic pellet supply chain, which can lead to a blame game between actors,” Tullis told Euronews.

Her words were echoed by Lucie Padovani at the green group Surfrider Foundation Europe, who told Euronews that MEPs need to acknowledge this reality and vote for a regulation that covers the value chain without exceptions.

But Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea, who heads a circular economy unit at the European Commission environment directorate warned MEPs of the potential impact of additional red tape on small economic operators: “We should be mindful that verification systems, while indispensable, bring a certain administrative burden [that] it is not fair to place on SMEs and on micro-enterprises because they produce a higher output.”

Albuquerque said the ENVI committee’s first debate of his report had “confirmed a broad consensus of positions between the S&D, Renew Europe, Greens and The Left”, which he took as a “very positive sign” that there is a strong majority to increase the ambition of the Commission’s initial proposal.

The parliamentary rapporteur recognised that with images of polluted beaches circling the world’s media, the environmental crisis in Galicia had raised the profile of the legislative file he has been tasked with steering through parliament. He called for pragmatic action in mitigating and preventing the repeat of such disasters and urged the Belgian presidency of the EU Council to prioritise the file at the governmental level.

Next week, the Galicia disaster will be debated by the full parliament in Strasbourg. The ENVI committee is due to adopt Albuquerque’s report on 19 March, and MEPs have until 16 January to propose amendments. The parliament is expected to adopt its final negotiating mandate in April at the last plenary sitting before EU elections.


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