KIMO International reacts to the loss of plastic pellets from MV Trans Carrier in the German Bight
Beaches and coastlines of KIMO International member municipalities in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have been polluted by the recent MV Trans Carrier plastic pellet spill in the German Bight. KIMO here highlights the failing of the current regulatory reporting regime and puts forward recommendations for preventing future accidents of this nature.
On 23rd February 2020, the MV Trans Carrier lost more than 10 tonnes of plastic pellets in the German Bight when the cargo on board moved during a storm, damaging one of the containers, which broke open. The vessel, operated by Seatrans Ship Management and owned by Sea-Cargo, was loaded with 26 tonnes of polypropylene pellets and was on route from Rotterdam (NL) to Tananger (NO).
At the time of the incident, the vessel’s captain followed due processes; cargo was secured and the incident reported on the same day to the relevant coastal authority, in accordance with the regulations. However, despite the incident being logged by the Norwegian Coastal Administration, no action was taken since the message received apparently indicated that the spill was too small to be dealt with.
However, since mid-March large quantities of plastic pellets have been washed up along Oslofjord, from Kristiansand on the west side of Oslofjord to the islands of Hvaler on the east side. So far, KIMO members Sotenäs, Öckerö and Göteborg (Sweden), Holstebro and Thisted (Denmark), and Arendal (Norway) have all been affected. Modelling of ocean currents by the Norwegian Coastal Administration suggests that additional pollution events in this area from this pellet spill are likely. Friends of the Earth Norway and Ren Kust (Clean Coast) Sweden have put in place (voluntary) mechanisms to collect information on where and how many pellets are washing up. However, in contrast to spills of oil, paraffin and other hazardous substances washing up on shorelines, the fact that that there is currently no requirement for municipalities to report on shoreline pollution from plastic pellets is a serious omission.
According to the Norner Plastics Research Institute in Norway, one kilogram amounts to about 47,000 plastic pellets, so we are faced with a stark reality that at least 470,000,000 small plastic pellets, between 1mm and 5mm diameter, have ended up in the sea from the MV Trans Carrier. The environmental risk to the marine and coastal ecosystems from this incident is high – plastic pellets cause harm to fish, marine mammals and seabirds through ingestion, and eventual breakdown into microplastics, with the associated risks to human health when these enter our own food chain.
Pellets that have washed up on beaches and shorelines are detrimental to recreation and leisure activities of coastal communities and to local businesses, and have a significant impact on tourism. The effects can be long lasting – the Dutch Wadden Sea island of Schiermonnikoog continues to be affected by pellets washing up from the MSC Zoe container spill that took place in January 2019. The impact on local economies can be considerable and income will be lost to local communities when beaches are closed following an incident of plastic pellet pollution. Identification of the source of the pollution can be difficult and the costs of the consequential beach and shore clean-up and of processing the waste are often borne by coastal communities.
KIMO first raised the issue of pollution from containerships and the lack of robust compensation regimes with regard to this sector of the shipping industry in 1995 at the 4th North Sea Ministerial Conference in Esbjerg and subsequently at the 5th Ministerial Conference in Bergen 2002, where Ministers agreed “to make coordinated efforts within IMO to review, strengthen and introduce, if appropriate, further compensation and liability regimes.”
However, 25 years later there is still no specific international liability and compensation regime in place for spillages of non-toxic products (other than oil), although any incident happening within a national Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is subject to national law. In the case of the MV Trans Carrier, the owner (Sea-Cargo) has undertaken to prioritise solutions to remove the pellets that have washed up on shorelines and to identify measures to prevent similar incidents happening in future. However, even when a ship owner’s insurance is willing to meet the initial clean-up costs, a portion of the lost cargo remains on the sea floor or on the shorelines and continues to pollute the environment for years to come placing a significant operational and financial burden on coastal authorities.
KIMO represents over 80 municipalities across Europe that work together for sustainable seas. KIMO believes that there are measures that should be implemented to reduce the number of containers lost or damaged at sea every year and the associated impacts on coastal communities.
KIMO urges all European governments, the European Commission and the European Parliament to act together at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to establish the following measures:
- National Coastal Administrations to implement robust, transparent processes to ensure that immediate action is taken to mitigate spills of plastic pellets and other non-toxic substances;
- Competent revision of the ISO standard requiring containers with reduced stacking or racking capacity to be marked so they can be identified, stowed and lashed safely on deck;
- Financial penalties and compensation regimes for the retrieval of lost containers and/or their contents, according to the ‘polluter pays’ principle;
- Implementation of a Convention on liability and compensation for damage in connection with the carriage of non-toxic substances including strict liability on ship owners for pollution from their vessels, compulsory insurance for all vessels and a reserve fund to cover shortfalls in compensation.