Spain declares environmental emergency as millions of plastic pellets spill from ship

Marine litter with nurdles on a beach in Sri Lanka

Communities across Northern Spain are fearing an environmental disaster as millions of tiny pellets, which were spilled by a cargo ship off Portugal last month, continue to wash ashore.

On 8 December 2023, the Liberia-registered Toconao, chartered by the shipping firm Maersk, lost six containers while sailing around 80km off northern Portugal. One of the six containers held over 1,000 sacks of plastic ‘nurdles’ — small PET pellets used in the manufacture of plastic products — weighing over 25,000kg.

PET is not biodegradable, meaning pellets will remain in the environment for centuries. The pellets can also be eaten by animals, and contribute to plastic in the food chain.

Dozens of communities across Spain’s northern coast have seen a “white tide” of the 5mm nurdles washing up ashore in the weeks following the disaster in December.

The Galicia region followed neighbouring Asturias on Tuesday (9 January 2024) by activating a level 2 emergency alert.

Hundreds of volunteers have taken to beaches in an attempt to clean up the spill in the north-west Galicia region, while fishers have been searching for sacks floating in the Atlantic.

There are fears the spill will continue to spread further east along the northern coast towards the Basque country.

In a statement, Maersk spokesman Rainer Horn says the shipping company ‘regretted’ the incident and would investigate.

Spanish public prosecutors have opened an investigation into the spill. The regional Galician government has pointed fingers at the national Socialist-led government, accusing it of not informing local authorities of the spill for two weeks, and failing to activate a marine pollution plan. The national government denies this.

Spain encountered its worst environmental disaster in 2002, when the oil tanker Prestige broke up, spilling 60,000 tonnes of oil along the region’s shoreline.

The ongoing Toconao spill is reminiscent of the X-Press Pearl disaster, in which a cargo ship carrying chemicals caught on fire off the coast of Sri Lanka in May 2021, resulting in the spillage of an estimated 70 billion nurdles into the ocean.

Main image courtesy of Sören Funk/Ocean Image Bank.

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