Image from a Galician facebook group: Vecinos de Monte Alto (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1217402721788836/?hoisted_section_header_type=recently_seen&multi_permalinks=2363179940544436)
Image from a Galician facebook group: Vecinos de Monte Alto (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1217402721788836/?hoisted_section_header_type=recently_seen&multi_permalinks=2363179940544436)

Portuguese coast threatened by leaked cargo of millions of tiny plastic balls

15 tons of tiny plastic balls lost at sea “washing up on Galician beaches” 

Ports authorities in northern Portugal are “concerned” and paying “extra attention” to the possibility of the Portuguese coast being affected by tiny plastic balls (nurdles) that are being washed up in their millions on the beaches of Galicia, further north, in Spain.  

“Of course we’re worried. In our daily patrols we haven’t found anything so far, but we’re paying extra attention. We learnt about the problem from the Spanish media,” captain of Viana do Castelo port, Serrano da Paz, tells Lusa.

Spain’s environment ministry revealed yesterday that Galician authorities have activated an environmental alert due to what locals affirm are millions of tiny plastic balls washing up in the region after a boat lost a 15 tonne cargo of this material in Portuguese waters in December.

The Spanish public prosecutor’s office has announced that it has opened an investigation into possible responsibility.

According to information provided by Spain’s ministry of the environment, a Liberian-flagged cargo ship lost six of the containers it was carrying on December 8 in Portuguese waters, 80 kilometres from Viana do Castelo.

One of these containers, according to the Spanish government, was carrying 1,000 bags of these small white balls used in the manufacture of plastics.

Viana do Castelo’s ports captain tells Lusa that he has “no confirmation that the product appearing on Galician beaches comes from the boat that lost its cargo off the coast of Viana on December 8”.

On the day of the incident, “the ship’s captain reported to the Search and Rescue Centre that eight containers had fallen into the water,” he recalls.

“A speedboat then went to the scene and no longer found the containers, which normally sink.

“At the scene, we realised there was no longer any danger to navigation, but the Navy still issued a warning for vessels to take special care”.

Now, faced with reports of kilos of plastic pellets appearing on the beaches of the Galician coast, the ports captain is clearly aware of the possibilities.

According to information quoted by the Spanish media, the first bags – weighing around 15 kilos each – were identified on Galician beaches on December 13, and so far almost 60 have been collected.

However, it was at the end of last week that “scores of plastic balls” (Lusa’s description) dispersed from the bags began to reach the shore, with environmental organisations and local newspapers talking about the material “invading the sands” and “sands being painted white”.

Last Friday, Galicia’s regional government activated level 1 (the least serious) of the territorial Contingency Plan for Marine Contamination, which provides for surveillance and clean-up tasks.

Ángeles Vázquez, regional government councillor with responsibility for the environment (equivalent to a minister in a central executive), said today that analyses have been carried out and the small balls “are neither toxic nor dangerous”.

But it is plastic and it needs to be removed from the beaches,” she said.

According to Galician environmental association Noia Limpa, which cites data from EU Monitor, these plastic balls are less than 5 millimetres in diameter, are used in the plastics industry and it is estimated that between 52,140 and 184,290 tonnes were lost to the environment in 2019 alone.

Noia Limpa’s Facebook page carries a map showing how many beaches have been affected so far, and directs people to a petition, entitled: “Stop with the marine contamination of pellets”

Since they are not biodegradable, these small balls break down over the years into nanoparticles – microplastics that enter the marine food chain and ultimately the human food chain.

Source: LUSA/ Facebook groups