The threat waste plastics have on the environment is well covered, but while the media and big business are caught up with microbeads and food packaging, an equally sinister waste plastic is leaking, not out of the waste stream at the consumer end, but the manufacturing value chain.
Copyright The Great Nurdle Hunt, via Facebook
Fidra, the East-Lothian-based environmental charity, is working with industry to raise awareness for Operation Clean Sweep, the plastics industry-devised scheme that encourages the adoption of best plastic pellet management practice. The scheme is backed by the British Plastics Federation (BPF) and PlasticsEurope.
Madeleine Berg, Projects Officer, and Sarah Archer, Project Manager, engage directly with companies, and visit plastics processors, producers and distributors of all sizes, gathering data to ascertain how serious pre-production plastic leakage is, boosting the profile of the issue.
The Great Nurdle Hunt
Fidra has captured the attention of the public via The Great Nurdle Hunt project, which aims to illustrate how mismanaged materials handling can lead to 'nurdles', or plastic pellets, appearing on beaches. The Great Nurdle Hunt rallies together members of the public to take a survey of how many pellets they find on their local beaches, returning the information to Fidra to add to its growing body of evidence that pellet leakage into the environment is a real concern.
Operation Clean Sweep communicates directly with anyone in industry who handles plastic pellets, powders or flakes. It encourages simple, low-cost best practice measures where improper materials handling may be the source of plastic leakage.
"We've been visiting companies to raise awareness that this is an issue so they can put measures in to prevent pellet loss," said Archer. "Operation Clean Sweep was devised by industry, for industry, and it's entirely voluntary. Presently there isn’t a way for companies to communicate what measures they are putting in place. Improving the transparency of Operation Clean Sweep would help show customers how companies are handling pellets responsibly. This shouldn’t be burdensome, and could be incorporated into an auditing process that many companies already carry out."
Fidra has been working with its 'citizen science' data to gather evidence to back its cry to businesses to integrate better handling systems into their operation and feed into the Government consultation on microplastics, but with only a fraction of British businesses committing to the guidelines Operation Clean Sweep sets out, Fidra has its work cut out, which is why Government support is needed.
"The companies we've dealt with closely have really done a good job," Berg stated. "Some companies have really run with it especially in terms of staff awareness, training and supply chain communication. However, it isn’t always so clear what other companies have done. Our position is, therefore, that Government support could be critical, especially as a way to support companies that are doing the right thing."
Such Government support could take a great many shapes, but Fidra feels that the end result should make responsible pellet handling systems attractive to implement, rather than wrapped in red tape, incentivising best practice so nobody is at a disadvantage.
The message is ultimately positive. As Berg said, nobody wants pellet loss because not only are they undesirable in the natural world but losing them also wastes material.
"In the Circular Economy, we often think about end of life materials, but there are also leaks throughout the production process," Archer remarked. "This is an entirely avoidable source of microplastic pollution but we and the BPF still aren't reaching everybody."
"Companies that don't necessarily engage with industry organisations or those who don’t see themselves as part of the plastics industry, such as transporters, may be missing out on hearing about this issue," Archer explained.
"All companies who handle plastic pellets, powders or flakes need to be aware of the risks. Spills will happen but it's about people knowing if spills do take place then they're cleared up properly. Even having vacuum cleaners available when unloading to clear up spills straight away can make a massive difference at a cheap cost and it's also relatively easy in terms of staff training."
She added that involving staff in training and making it visible that management takes the matter seriously would help engender good habits when handling pellets, powders or flakes.
There is limited information available on the number of pellets that are lost to the environment – although it has been estimated that in the UK as much as 53 billion pellets could be lost to the environment each year. However, both Berg and Archer believe Government support and upstream brand-owner influence could have a positive influence on stopping pre-production plastics from escaping the value chain altogether.