This World Environment Day, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) investigators released a film that exposes poor industry practice from 'plastic injection moulding factories', which is leading to a pollution epidemic of the nation's waterways and coastline.
SAS campaigners have focused their attention on plastic and polystyrene pellets. These are the very raw materials that many of today's plastic products are moulded from, yet millions of them are being deposited around the UK's coastline.
Little more than a few millimetres in diameter, the pellets, which have been nicknamed 'mermaids tears' by campaigners, are the second most common litter item found on UK beaches according to the Marine Conservation Society's 2007 Beachwatch data. By their very nature they do not biodegrade, absorb harmful polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in concentrations up to a million times greater than the surrounding seawater and they can also be a deadly threat to sea life, which mistake them for food.
Over the past few months, SAS investigators have filmed at several plastic injection-moulding factories in Cornwall, documenting poor housekeeping practice, which is responsible for spilled pellets making their way into local waters and eventually the ocean.
In particular, they documented spilled pellets routinely left outside the factory premises, clusters of plastic and polystyrene pellets inside storm drain grills, pellets floating in their masses inside drains outside factories and wind-blown pellets strewn around other industrial premises nearby to the factories.
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They also filmed on Porthtowan beach, local to SAS campaigning headquarters in St Agnes, which is a magnet for this type of plastic litter. Here they documented rock pools full of plastic pellets and a tide line dominated by this micro litter.
In October 2007, SAS campaigners delivered a 500ml-sized bottle full to the cap with plastic pellets to British Plastic Federation (BPF) bosses in London. Inside the bottle were 10,000 pellets collected exclusively from Porthtowan beach. SAS were heartened by the industry's response to this and plans were made for a code of conduct to be developed in the UK to achieve zero pellet loss as a priority for the plastics industry. This would be a great step forward, though it has not yet been established in the UK (though has in the USA under the banner Operation Clean Sweep).
However, SAS fears that many of the smaller factories that operate outside the BPF will continue to operate with poor housekeeping unless an industry wide solution is developed. None of the factories SAS filmed at are members of the BPF for instance.
SAS believes there is now an urgent need for plastic and polystyrene pellets to be contained and reclaimed and a culture of behavioural change adopted by the plastics industry for zero pellet loss, so they can play their part in preventing this escape route for their product. This should also be extended to ensure that the shipping of plastic pellets is carried out with the same ethos, to help in prevention of plastic pellet loss via shipping containers, another route believed to be responsible for their escape into the water environment.
Richard Hardy, SAS Campaigns Director, says: "Our investigation has confirmed plastic factories are guilty of poor housekeeping practices and so contribute to plastic pellets escaping into the water environment, sadly helping them become established as one of the worst offending beach litter items in the UK. With a committed effort from the plastics industry to improve housekeeping we could see a marked improvement. Surfers take great pride in protecting and preserving the beaches they and others use for recreation and this is a problem we want the plastic industry to prevent with immediate effect."