Why Congress needs to protect our waters from plastic pellet pollution

A panel of experts explained the damage plastic pellets are having on our environment and how they are fighting back.

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Six expert panelists discussed their work combating plastic pellet pollution in an online event attended by more than 200 people. The webinar, “Protecting our waters from plastic pellet pollution,” organized by PIRG, Environment America, and Environmental Action, explained how community members are using eyes on the ground and litigation to combat plastic pellet pollution and how a new federal bill in Congress would prevent this pollution in the first place. The webinar was organized as an educational event meant to spread awareness of the issue of plastic pellet pollution and to build momentum behind the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act.

Plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, are an intermediary product between a raw material, such as gas or crude oil, and a finished plastic product. Nurdles are estimated to be the second-most common type of primary microplastic — plastics intentionally manufactured to be tiny, not broken-down pieces of larger plastic —  in the ocean by weight.

These pellets are sent to companies that manufacture plastic products– everything from single-use plastics like forks, take away containers, and grocery bags to durable plastic products such as toothbrushes, Legos, and car bumpers.

Their small size and light weight permits them to be easily shipped, which allows the plastic supply chain to span the globe. The plastic pellet pollution we are seeing is the result of a growing plastic industry in the U.S., which thrives off cheap natural gas, and does not have sufficient oversight.

Companies can discharge these pellets into waterways without any oversight and without any Federal Regulation. It's unacceptable. It's a catastrophe and we've got to put a stop to it. Our kids deserve a world free from polluted water and from contaminated food... that's why I introduced the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act. Representative Mike Levin
CA-49

Pennsylvania

Captain Evan Clark (Three Rivers Waterkeeper) and Eric Harder (Mountain Watershed Association) spoke about their experiences in Western Pennsylvania with nurdles. The construction of a new Shell ethane cracker plant, with a lot of glossy promises, including the production of polyethylene nurdles, sparked a deeper collaboration between the two organizations to create baseline data on water quality.

We started dragging our trawl through… there's tons of tiny little plastics, smaller than a poppy seed, and right in the middle there's a tiny fish. It is very common to see fish around any outfall, fish schooling, big pods, a lot of bait fish. Captain Evan Clark
Three Rivers Waterkeeper

While they were monitoring the water around this facility before it started operations, they found different nurdles in their local waterway. The nurdles they found were different; they were tiny, poppy-seed sized, polystyrene nurdles– and they were everywhere. Three Rivers Waterkeeper, together with PennEnvironment, have a pending lawsuit against BVPV Styrenics LLC for allegedly discharging pellets within their storm- and waste-water.

Captain Evan Clark | Used by permission
There is no set standard for nurdles or plastic pellet pollution. And for Pennsylvania, I don't feel that the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania] will be establishing some standard until after the EPA does. Eric Clark
Mountain Watershed Association

South Carolina

When pellets started showing up on beaches in Charleston, South Carolina, people started to wonder where they were coming from. When they found the suspected culprit, they went to the state authorities.

There was no permit for this facility under the Clean Water Act that covered the discharge of nurdles. The state of South Carolina really did nothing, because there was no permit to enforce. Catherine Wannamaker
Senior Attorney

In response, together with the Charleston Waterkeeper, the Southern Environmental Law Center monitored for 25 weeks. This case was the second major case against a nurdle-handling facility, arguing that nurdles were a pollutant under the federal Clean Water Act and that under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, nurdles were a solid waste that present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the environment.

Ultimately, Frontier Logistics had to pay over a million dollars in damages. Their facility had to change locations, and the new facility needed to be inspected to ensure pellets would not be lost again.

Texas

Diane Wilson has been fighting against Formosa Plastic, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, for over 35 years. The facility produces a trillion nurdles a day. She was the plaintiff in a case against Formosa Plastics in 2019. This landmark case was the largest Clean Water Act settlement won by a private citizen.

We are historically fishing communities. We have Vietnamese and Hispanic oystermen, shrimpers, trout liners, finn fisherman, and and we also have sports fishermen, who love to come down to the Gulf-- these are the people that are applying their trade right in the middle of all of this mess. Diane Wilson

She went out everyday, together with three people, to monitor the site and collect samples.

She went to court with 2,500 samples that included millions of nurdles. This monumental effort had monumental results by winning a $50 million settlement requiring zero discharge of plastic with monitoring, enforcement and clean-up.

National

The plastic industry may seem like a goliath industry too powerful to tackle. The speakers proved this sentiment wrong- it’s possible. Lisa Frank urged attendees to take action on the spot by asking them to sign a petition to support the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act.

Here's where we stand. There are more than 70 senators and representatives who have endorsed this legislation. That is a great start, but there are 535 members of Congress. So, we are going to need more support to pass the bill this year. Lisa Frank
Executive Director, Environment America
Lisa Frank

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Authors

Kelly Leviker

Beyond Plastic, Advocate, PIRG

Kelly advocates for a world with less plastic pollution. Kelly lives in Denver with her family, where she enjoys hiking, botanical illustration and traveling.

Lisa Frank

Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network

Lisa leads Environment America’s work for a greener, healthier world. She also directs The Public Interest Network’s Washington, D.C., office and operations. A pragmatic idealist, Lisa has helped win billions of dollars in investments in clean energy and transportation and developed strategic campaigns to protect America’s oceans, forests and public lands. Lisa is an Oregonian transplant to the Capital region, where she loves hiking, running, biking, and cooking for friends and family.