French Authorities Hunt for Source of Plastic Pellet Spill

Pure ocean fund
Image courtesy Pure Ocean Fund

Published Jan 24, 2023 4:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

Environmental authorities in France are livid over a wave of plastic nurdles washing up on the pristine shores of Brittany, where the tiny white pellets have become known as the "white tide" or "mermaid's tears." The source vessel is unknown, but local and national officials have asked prosecutors to find and charge the anonymous perpetrator.

Nurdle pollution can interfere with tourism and fishing, and it has been linked to deformities in marine life. The problem is widespread, but it gained attention after the sinking of the feeder X-Press Pearl off the coast of Sri Lanka in 2021. That accident released nearly 1,700 tonnes of white plastic pellets - raw ingredients for the manufacturing of plastic goods - which washed up in drifts along the island's western shores. It was by far the largest spill of its kind in history, and the long-term damage to marine life, fisheries and tourism will likely cost Sri Lanka billions of dollars.

The spill off the coast of Brittany is much smaller in scope than the X-Press Pearl disaster, but the pollution is substantial enough to draw the ire of local activists and officials. White beads have been washing up by the thousands in Finistere, Vendee, Loire-Atlantique and Morbihan. Last week, the mayors of the towns of  Pornic and Sables-d'Olonne joined the president of Pays de la Loire, Christelle Morancais, in filing a legal complaint against the unknown "X" responsible for the spill. 

In comments before the French parliament Tuesday, minister for ecological transition Christophe Béchu called the nurdles an "environmental nightmare" and promised action to hold polluters accountable. 

Béchu and Hervé Berville, France's secretary of state for the sea, filed a separate complaint against "X" with prosecutors in the port of Brest on Tuesday. In a statement, Berville added that France will make "a request to make the loss of containers by ships a priority area of ??work for the International Maritime Organization."

The officials' working theory is that the spilled nurdles came from a lost container. Ocean carriers are not required to report specific box losses on the high seas, and the source is often exceptionally difficult to trace. Experts from French water pollution institute Cedre have been dispatched to sample the plastic on Brittany's shores and analyze it for clues.

In a statement, activist group Surfrider France called for legislative action. "In addition to the question of the loss of containers at sea, we would like the prevention of these losses to be taken into account. That is to say: restrict the pollution to the source amd adopt binding measures," the group said in a social media message.