ANTWERP, Belgium — The obscure environmental problem of nurdles has taken center stage in a battle between Belgian activists and one of the world’s biggest petrochemical companies.
Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets used as building blocks to make everything from bottles and candy wrappers to sewage pipes and bath ducks, but many don’t make it into the final plastic product because they escape during production.
Campaigners aren’t sure exactly how many nurdles are already buried in the sand and dirt of the banks of the River Scheldt in Belgium’s industrial port city, but they know they are a problem — and they fear a planned €3 billion development will make things worse.
Ineos, a Swiss-registered multinational, in January 2019 choose Antwerp as the site for two new plants: an ethane cracker, which converts ethane into ethylene, and a plant that converts propane into propylene — both basic raw materials used by the plastics industry.
The investment would boost Antwerp’s position as the second-largest petrochemical hub in the world after Houston, Texas. Antwerp’s Mayor Bart De Wever said he was “proud and humble” that Ineos, owned by Britain’s third-richest man Jim Ratcliffe, had chosen the city for “the biggest investment in European chemistry in 20 years.”
Not everyone in Antwerp shares that enthusiasm.
“This is ground zero for the climate fight in Europe,” said Thomas Goorden from Antwerpen Schaliegasvrij, an environmental organization focused on plastics and fracking-based resources.
“The Ineos factory is essentially the perfect storm,” he said, adding that most Belgian environmental groups and a dozen European organizations, including Extinction Rebellion and ClientEarth, have teamed up to protest the construction plans. “In a time when we want to reduce our reliance on plastics, we shouldn’t be investing in more companies in Belgium making plastics.”
Ineos says it is being unfairly targeted by a group of activists that is “strangely blind to other investments” in the port city.
Nathalie Meert, a spokesperson for the company, said the new installations will produce ethylene and propylene in gas form, which will be transported via pipelines to other factories to make components for windmills, solar panels, medical applications and electric cars.
“These are all sustainable long-lasting applications,” Meert said, adding that the plants should not be considered “plastic factories.”
Some 5,000 people filed a complaint against the Port of Antwerp because of the new installations, in addition to two complaints submitted by around 30 local and international organizations. As well as the risk of nurdles leaking into the environment, the groups question how the plants meet Belgium’s climate change commitments and ambitions to cut waste.
According to a study commissioned by the European Commission, more than 160,000 tons of pellets are lost every year in the EU during transport, storage, processing into new plastics and the recycling of old plastics.
With over 20 companies already producing or processing plastic products in Antwerp, in November dozens of volunteers took part in a “nurdle hunt,” organized by Antwerpen Schaliegasvrij. They collected 22,000 nurdles at 50 spots along the coast of Belgium.
Nurdles have been found in surface water samples and on beaches all over the world. One study estimated that up to 53 billion pellets may be spilled annually in the U.K. alone.
Once in the environment, the plastic pellets — which are about the size of a lentil — are thought to be ingested by hundreds of species of fish and birds, which mistake them for food. “This can cause blockages of the digestive tract, or the animal no longer feels hungry because its stomach or intestines are full of plastics and it is starving itself,” said Ronny Blust, vice rector at the University of Antwerp.
Blust, who is a biologist, said smaller nurdles could travel through intestine walls and end up in the bloodstream.
The port authority in Antwerp in 2017 signed a charter with the various companies in the plastic chain to strive for zero loss of pellets. Since 2015, the industry body PlasticsEurope has been trying to do the same with a five-step plan called Operation Clean Sweep.
As part of the effort, port authorities cleaned an estimated 3.3 tons of nurdles from five hotspots in the first quarter of 2019.
But the port acknowledges more still needs to be done. “Historical and new pellets pollution can still be observed in the area of the port, unfortunately,” it said in a statement.
Ineos — which is already signed up to the charter — said it’s working hard to reduce pellet pollution. That includes using special collars on vents transferring nurdles from trucks to factories to ensure they don’t spill.
“We also invested in extra personnel to inspect the wagons before leaving the site … and in the second half of 2020, a ‘blowing off tunnel’ will be installed on the site in Lillo and Zandvliet,” which means that every truck leaving the site would be cleaned of leftover nurdles.
But environmentalists say that won’t be enough.
The Plastic Soup Foundation, a Dutch NGO, in January filed the first legal complaint against an existing facility to halt plastic pellet pollution, in a bid to force Rotterdam plastic producer Ducor Petrochemical to clean up the area around its factory. “This is only the first in a series of forthcoming enforcement requests,” said Maria Westerbos, the foundation’s director.
They’re hoping it won’t get to that stage with the Ineos development.
“Our strategy is to stall the plans as long as possible and make investors withdraw,” Goorden said.
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