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Why a Small Irish Town Is Fighting to Stop a Plastics Factory

Residents of Skibbereen fear the industrial facility would foul their air and water while adding to ocean plastic pollution. The plant is part of a global plastic factory-building boom driven by cheap natural gas.

Written by Erica Cirino Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Nurdles are plastic pellets and resin materials that can make their way onto beaches and into coastal waters.

A wave of governments has moved to ban single-use plastics, actions that reflect a growing awareness of the ocean plastic pollution crisis.

But residents fighting a proposed plastic factory in Ireland say governments should also take a harder look at pollution coming from facilities that manufacture plastic and that are a source of marine litter.

Since 2017, residents of Skibbereen have been trying to stop plans to open a plastic-pellet manufacturing plant in their town of 2,500 people. They say the facility, proposed by the United States-based RTP Company, would pollute the air and water, harm their quality of life and threaten the local marine-based economy, which includes fishing and a top whale-watching destination. The residents also link their opposition to the European Union’s new plastic reduction strategy, adopted in January.

“The European Union has invested 350 million into research on plastic use and waste reduction,” said Malcolm Thompson, a sustainability consultant who is leading local opposition as part of a group called Save Our Skibbereen. “And now they’re letting the plastic industry come into a stunning natural corner of the E.U. where it will pollute the environment and endanger human health.”

Fishing boats in the harbor in County Cork, Ireland. (Geography Photos/UIG via Getty Images)

The factory would manufacture trillions of plastic pellets a year in a facility located 2km (1 mile) from the town. The lentil-sized pellets – sometimes called “nurdles” – are the raw material used to make a variety of plastic products. During production and transport or through wastewater discharges, however, the nurdles can make their way into coastal waterways and eventually the ocean. For the Skibbereen residents, air emissions, traffic and water discharges from the facility are also primary concerns.

Scientists agree that wherever there is a plastic pellet factory, there’s a risk for plastic pollution that flows into the ocean. And with growing global supply and demand for plastics, the risk of pellet pollution will only increase, they say, though it’s not always easy to keep tabs on when and where factories are being built.

“I know production is expected to increase significantly in the future,” said Chelsea Rochman, a plastic pollution researcher at the University of Toronto. The most surprising thing she’s learned about plastic pellets is “how ubiquitous they are,” she said. “We find pellets in the middle of oceans and on remote island beaches. We should start preventing [pollution] at the source.”

Researchers from the University of Gothenburg estimate that at one manufacturing site in Stenungsund, Sweden, between 3 million and 36 million nurdles are lost into the environment every year. That’s likely because existing regulations meant to prevent leakage of nurdles have not been adequately enforced, the researchers wrote in a 2018 study. Major plastic spills have also occurred during transportation of plastic at sea, including off the coasts of South Africa and Hong Kong. The painstaking and ongoing cleanups of these and other spills underscore the challenge of removing tiny nurdles from the environment.

The pellets are small and round and thus are a ready-made source of microplastic. Once in the ocean, seabirds, fish and other animals often mistake them for fish eggs, said Alasdair Neilson, project manager at Scotland environmental nonprofit Fidra, which has organized a project to study plastic pellet pollution called The Great Nurdle Hunt. The pellets also contain and attract chemicals known to cause health problems in wildlife. Researchers have found that toxins picked up by plastic in the marine environment typically get stored in an animal’s fat deposits, slowly poisoning them. Toxins move up the food chain when one animal that has consumed plastic is eaten by another.

European Commission (E.C.) spokesperson Enrico Brivio noted that the commission’s new plastic strategy clearly identified pellet loss “as an issue to be better tackled in the E.U.” He said the E.C. is currently working to establish guidelines or a certification program for reducing pellet spillage, and some in the industry are already engaging in voluntary efforts to curb loss, specifically through an industrial management program called Operation Clean Sweep. The European Commission for Environment, he said, has not received any criticisms on the Skibbereen factory, but will assess any complaints, should they be filed. The county government approved the factory last year and an appeal is now being heard by Ireland’s planning board.

In the U.S., a worker fills a truck with small plastic pellets brought in by train and takes them to a nearby factory to be made into plastic bins. (Michael S.Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

RTP Company, known as Daly Products in Ireland, declined to comment on the residents’ health and safety concerns about the factory in Skibbereen. “We welcomed the decision of Cork County Council to grant planning permission for our project in Skibbereen, which gave due consideration to the observations received from local residents,” said Danny Miles, RTP chief administrative officer and vice president.

The company also opened a new 8,000 square-meter (86,000 square-feet) plastic factory in Wroclaw, Poland, this summer. But it’s not alone in its drive to expand plastic production.

A series of reports published last year by the Center for International Environmental Law suggested the availability of inexpensive natural gas in the U.S. led fossil fuel companies to invest more than $180 billion in plastic production facilities around the world. Demand for plastics, particularly for packaging, is also rising, despite efforts that aim to curb use, such as plastic bag bans and zero-waste campaigns, according to the reports.

But in Skibbereen and elsewhere, there is also resistance to new plastic factories. For example, in the U.S., the Center for Biological Diversity and local residents had petitioned Texas to reject a Clean Water Act permit for a plastic facility to be built next to Corpus Christi Bay. But in July, a state commission approved the wastewater permit, which would allow discharge of pollutants, including plastic fragments, directly into the bay. If built, it would be the world’s largest plastics plant, according to the environmental group. In June, the Center for Biological Diversity also submitted notices of intent to sue three plastics manufacturers around Los Angeles for violating the Clean Water Act by polluting waterways with plastic pellets.

Save Our Skibbereen claims RTP did not conduct an adequate assessment of the plastic factory’s environmental impact, and that much information about the facility as well as County Cork’s initial approval decision had not been made public.

“What is a citizen of West Cork even going to get out of this?” asked Thompson. “Maybe 20 jobs, a lungful of pollutants and some very horrific environmental issues.”

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