Spain’s coast destroyed by plastic and West Cork could be next

In 2019, the people of Skibbereen won an important victory that all of Ireland should be proud of. Joining together as a community they stopped the construction of a plastic pellets factory that threatened our local environment and the natural heritage that is our Atlantic Ocean.

It is estimated that 230,000 tonnes of these plastic pellets, known as ‘nurdles’, are now washed into the sea every year, either from land-based sources and factories or from container ships with unsecured loads. It is an environmental catastrophe that continues day after day with little news coverage. Most recently this disaster hit the Galician coast when a Maersk container ship spilled millions of these ‘nurdles’ into the Atlantic. 

Earlier this month, I travelled to Galicia, known for its fishing capital Vigo and its famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. I went to aid in the clean up of Galicia’s beach and show support from the European Parliament, as we try to tackle this plague of plastic. It was a scene reminiscent of the infamous Prestige oil tanker spill in 2002 when millions of litres of crude oil clogged the coast and destroyed habitats in one fell swoop. 

There the community of Galicia joined together and put in the work to save their coastline. We don’t know where the plastic pellets were manufactured, but had it not been for the active community of Skibbereen, the plastic pellets could have smeared ‘Made in Ireland” all over the marine ecosystems of northwest Spain with its plastic toxin. 

When these plastic pellets, which are made from petroleum, spill into the ocean it is in my opinion nothing but an oil spill by another name. In fact in many ways it is much more difficult to clean up these disasters, with millions of nurdles washing up on shores across Europe and ending up in the digestive tracts of turtles, whales and the fish that are landed in Castletownbere every day. 

We need better regulation of plastics transport and we need to tackle our society’s deadly addiction to cheap plastic. Unlike the transport of materials like crude oil, which is classified as ‘hazardous to transport’, there are no such regulations for the transport of crude plastics. Yet the issue of plastics in the ocean is so severe that it is estimated by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, in terms of weight. 

Last October, the European Commission proposed new legislation to cut down on plastic pellet waste, and this is now being examined by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee. It is a step in the right direction but the legislation doesn’t go far enough. I am fighting in that committee with my Green colleagues to include more restrictions on the maritime transport of plastic pellets. 

The current situation must change. The petrochemical plastic industries that make a profit out of the destruction of the marine environment cannot be defended. Our society’s addiction to plastic has become so severe that plastic packaging and waste has overwhelmed us to the point that we cannot recycle or reuse most of the plastic that is put on our shelves. Much of it will be incinerated or will make its way back into our environment and ultimately in our food or our local communities. This too is an area that needs legislating, which I am currently negotiating under the new EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation.  

The EU should take a lesson from the people of Skibbereen who said loud and clear “we will not be complicit in this plague of plastic.” 

MEP Grace O’Sullivan with the plastic pellets that have washed up on Spain’s shores

Grace O'Sullivan

Grace O'Sullivan is the Green Party MEP for Ireland South, former Senator, mother, former Greenpeace activist, & ecologist.

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