Industry fights to keep nurdle plastic pollution a mystery

With microplastics pollution at dangerous levels, the EU is preparing to ban almost all plastic added to products. The law originally aimed to rein in the use of the basic building block of all plastic products: nurdles. Then industry pushed back, explains Jack Hunter.

Microplastic pollution is out of control, according to EU scientists. Nurdles are the basic building block for everything plastic. The little pellets of raw material sound harmless, even cute. 

But ECHA warns they are harmful to sea life and persist for thousands of years, while other scientists have observed them soaking up chemical pollution in the environment and building up in the food chain. 

They spill out of industrial logistics chains in huge volumes, as much as 167,000 tonnes per year in Europe, and are now found on 9 out of 10 checked beaches on all continents. 

EU leaders describe plastic pollution as an environmental and health hazard needing swift action. But with no existing requirements on industry to limit spills into the environment, new EU rules were proposed demanding that companies record precisely how much and what kind of nurdles they use, as well as how many are spilled into the environment. 

Stripped of ambition

In an upcoming analysis due out on 1 September 2020, the EEB will show that intense pressure by lobbyists for firms including BASF, Chemours, Chevron, Dow, DuPont, Exxon and Ineos has resulted in almost all the original ambition being dropped, replaced largely by a toothless requirement for a rough estimate of nurdle losses. 

On top of this, firms also won a 36 month regulatory holiday, so while the law will come into force in 2022, firms can continue acting with impunity until 2025. NGOs expect attempts to water this down further. 

Campaigners say the weakened proposal is a missed opportunity, arguing that meaningful and immediate reporting requirements, alongside strict control measures at factories, are the best ways to stop nurdle pollution. 

A final round of public consultation on the EU microplastic ban ends on 1 September. The European Commission will consider whether to change the draft law from December. Member state governments will then vote on the law in 2021 and it is expected to go into force in early 2022


Photo by hockadilly