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Insurers want plastic pellets classified as dangerous goods

German marine insurers are taking action against plastic pollution in the oceans. They want to ensure that plastic pellets are declared as hazardous goods worldwide in the future if they are transported by sea.

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Every year, millions of tons of plastic pellets are shipped in containers across the world's oceans.

“As a hazardous material, plastic pellets should be better packaged for sea transport, and appropriate containers should also be stowed below deck. This minimises the risk of cargo loss", says Jörg Asmussen, Chief Executive Officer of the German Insurance Association (GDV).

Pellets are the basic material of most plastic products, millions of tons are transported by sea every year. Containers loaded with pellets are repeatedly lost overboard; in European waters alone, the annual loss is estimated at more than 200 tons. Classifying the pellets as dangerous goods would have another advantage in addition to safe loading: The relevant authorities would need to be informed of any loss and would be able to identify affected stretches of coastline more quickly. "In the event of a cargo loss, beaches need to be cleaned of pellets as quickly as possible. The costs for this are covered by the ship insurers - but the real problem is finding the small pieces in the first place", says Asmussen.

Plastic overboard!

Most cases remain unknown, but the loss of plastic pellets keeps making the headlines:

February 2020: The MV Trans Carrier, sailing from Rotterdam to Tananger (Norway), loses ten tons of pellets on board through a hole in the container after a storm. As a result, the pellets pollute the German Bay and the Oslofjord.

August 2020: In New Orleans, the CMA CGM Bianca breaks loose from the quay during a storm. A 40-foot container with 25 tons of synthetic resin granules falls from the ship into the Mississippi River.

October 2020: Large quantities of plastic pellets are discovered on the coast near Cape Town. The city's environmental managers believe they likely came from a container lost at sea.

May 2021: The X-Press Pearl catches fire and sinks off the coast of Sri Lanka. All containers are lost or damaged. Several broken containers contain plastic pellets, which then cover the nearby beaches.

The proposal can only be implemented at the international level: Whether a cargo is considered dangerous in shipping is determined by the (International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code. Any inclusion of plastic pellets in the code must be decided by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is part of the United Nations. GDV had submitted its demand to the IMO through the World Association of Marine Insurers, Asmussen emphasised. GDV would also support the competent IMO bodies in developing the necessary packaging and loading regulations.

The insurers hope that their initiative will have an vital effect on environmental protection: "Pellets that go overboard can cause major long-term environmental damage, threatening the biodiversity of affected coastal areas", Asmussen said. This is because animals often mistake the tiny particles for food and eventually die from them.