QUARTZ: Virgin plastic pellets are the biggest pollution disaster you’ve never heard of

Before plastic is made into anything else, it is made into pellets. And those pellets are leaking everywhere. When completed, the new facility will pump out 1.8 million tons (1.6 million metric tons) of plastic each year.  The vast majority of that plastic, like the vast majority of all plastic made up to now, will likely not be recycled. And it will exist virtually forever, crumbling into microplastics that show up most everywhere scientists look for them. Those small spheres, sometimes known as “nurdles,” are a massive source of plastic pollution, escaping into the environment before they have a chance to be molded into a useful shape. With roughly 22,000 nurdles per pound of plastic, the Shell plant intends to produce the rough equivalent of 80 trillion nurdles per year. As the Royal Dutch Shell plant rises in Pennsylvania, environmental groups and scientists are worried about the lack of regulation to specifically address plastic pellet pollution. (Shell did not return a request for comment.) 

By Zoë Schlanger: 19 Aug 2019

Some 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a township adjacent to a state forest, oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell is building a sprawling new plant to support what it sees as the future of its business: making millions of tons of new, virgin plastic.

US president Trump visited the facility last week, highlighting the 5,000 construction jobs it has created. The plant is just one of more than 300 new plastic facilities proposed or permitted for the US in the near future. Shell, along with other major oil and gas companies like Exxon, sees plastic as one avenue for growth as natural gas prices plummet—and, longer-term, as a way to weather the world’s slow rejection of fossil fuels as an energy source.

For now, if Shell can’t make money selling its plentiful natural gas, it can certainly make plastic with it. As a whole, the oil and gas industry aims to increase plastic feedstock production by at least 33% by 2025.

The Shell plant will rely on a process known as “ethane cracking,” where ethane gas, once seen as an unusable byproduct of gas extraction, can be molecularly “cracked”—its carbon and hydrogen atoms rearranged—to form ethylene, the main building block of plastic.

When completed, the new facility will pump out 1.8 million tons (1.6 million metric tons) of plastic each year. In a world where buying virgin plastic is often cheaper than using the recycled stuff, the new product will likely find an eager manufacturing market. The vast majority of that plastic, like the vast majority of all plastic made up to now, will likely not be recycled. And it will exist virtually forever, crumbling into microplastics that show up most everywhere scientists look for them.

But first, that new plastic will take a ubiquitous, often overlooked form: It will be born into the world as a tiny plastic pellets. Those small spheres, sometimes known as “nurdles,” are a massive source of plastic pollution, escaping into the environment before they have a chance to be molded into a useful shape. With roughly 22,000 nurdles per pound of plastic, the Shell plant intends to produce the rough equivalent of 80 trillion nurdles per year.

Very little research exists to quantify how many of these pre-production pellets end up in the environment. Available estimates tend to be locally isolated; one recent study found that production facilities in the UK lose between 5 billion and 35 billion pellets a year, for example. In 2017, two shipping vessels collided, spilling 49 metric tons of pellets into the sea and coating 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) of South Africa’s coastline with nurdles.

Short of any more specific quantification, researchers do know that pellets account for a whole lot of the world’s total plastic pollution. Some estimates suggest half of all microplastics might actually be these pre-production pellets.

“Pellets make up the second most common type of microplastic that we find, second to fragments which break down from things that are bigger,” says Sherri Mason, a plastics pollution researcher at Pennsylvania State University who has published foundational studies on microplastics found in freshwater. She spends much of her time collecting and counting bits of plastic in the environment. “I can go to any beach, give me five minutes and I’ll find a nurdle,” she says. “Along a river, 10 minutes. Once you know what a nurdle looks like you find them everywhere.”

Nurdles are about the size of a lentil. And like anything tiny and round, they are tough to keep track of. They roll away. They tumble into waterways. The wind can blow them around. In the vicinity of plastic manufacturing or packaging plants, nurdles have been documented spilling onto the ground and tumbling out of water discharge pipes.

Manufacturers often use pneumatic hoses, like vacuums, to move the pellets from place to place. Wherever those hoses connect and disconnect—to fill train cars or trucks for shipping, for example—pellets are known to spill out. The new Shell plant will have its own rail system, equipped with 3,300 freight cars.

A regulatory Wild West

As the Royal Dutch Shell plant rises in Pennsylvania, environmental groups and scientists are worried about the lack of regulation to specifically address plastic pellet pollution. (Shell did not return a request for comment.) California is the only state with regulations to specifically control for plastic pellet pollution.

FULL BRILLIANT BUT ALARMING ARTICLE

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