Brussels examines the situation with plastic pellets in northern Spain

by Lorraine Williamson
Clean Sea

The plastic pellets disaster that hit the beaches of Galicia this week continues to spread. Biscay has now also been affected. The plastic problem, which has also been known in Catalonia for years, is now also occupying minds in Brussels.

There, the dumping of plastic pellets is described as a ‘threat’ to the environment and fisheries. Experts consulted believe that it is practically impossible to find bags of these microplastics in the water. This is due to the following;

  • poor visibility conditions in winter
  • small size of the material (the bags are one metre)
  • the colour (white)
  • the currents

Galicia and Cantabria have demanded that the government act to stop pellets washing up on Spanish shores. The Department of Transport has tried to do this using flights and satellites. But this has been without success, and neither have the thousands of ships sailing in the area.

European Parliament discusses the situation in Spain

The European Parliament will debate the Spanish situation in plenary in Strasbourg next week. The Commissioner for Environment and Oceans, Virgiijus Sinkevicius, receives several Spanish MEPs. They are asking for more decisiveness from Brussels to tackle this problem which, they stress, is ‘European’, not just Spanish.

Legislative proposal and amendment of the law

In anticipation of these meetings, the crisis has revived the debate on a legislative proposal – presented by the Commission in October – to ‘prevent microplastic pollution from the accidental loss of pellets’.

In addition, the disaster on the northern Spanish coast could lead to a fundamental change in the law. Several MEPs have stressed in recent days that the original text does not contain any controls on maritime transport. This means that any measures to prevent future pollution could not prevent the current catastrophe on the Spanish coast.


Brussels claims that, because of its ‘international dimension’, this type of transport falls under the responsibility of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). A senior Commission official reported that the European executive is ready to consider including in the regulation a specific ‘distinction’ between ‘intra-European’ and ‘purely international’ maritime transport. This will allow the future law to be applied independently of intensive maritime transport on the EU’s coasts.

Thinking about improvements

The Commission wants to work with the European Parliament to see what can be improved to solve this problem,” stressed Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea, Head of the European Commission’s Environment Department. He promised to convene a meeting with Parliament’s rapporteurs “in the coming weeks” to “improve the proposal” and to look at how at least some maritime transport could be included in legislation.

Cogesa Expats

“We have to learn from what is happening on the ground,” he said. But he also made it clear that a reform of the text should not lead to an increase in “administrative burdens.”

Tons of pellets dumped annually

According to the European Commission, between 52,000 and 184,000 tonnes of pellets are dumped into the environment every year due to the mistreatment of pellets. This corresponds to 2,100 to 7,300 trucks. The legislation proposed in October, based mainly on preventive measures depending on the size of the company, should reduce the unintentional dumping of pellets by 74%. In addition to positive environmental effects, this would result in a profit of between €23 and €127 million per year for manufacturers of microplastics.

Discussion sparked

The arrival of pellets on more and more beaches has sparked the discussion in Brussels. Commissioner Sinkevicius has said he is ready to discuss how the EU can “best help” in the current Spanish crisis. “The 25 tonnes of plastic pellets in Galicia threaten the marine environment and economic activities such as fishing,” Sinkevicius wrote on X.

Emergency meeting

His message is in response to the requests for an “emergency meeting” just before the Xunta de Galica decided to raise the alert level to level two. Asturias did this before, despite the fact that it has taken much longer for the grains to reach the beaches.

Ask for a European protocol

Socialists César Luena and Nicolás González Casares asked for the meeting with the European Commissioner, which will take place in Strasbourg on Thursday. At that time, the parliamentary debate – without a resolution – will also be held in plenary. In a written question, González Casares asked the Commission to “consider triggering a European protocol because plastic pellet pollution affects several Member States.”

Research into the role of Xunta de Galicia

IU MEP Manu Pineda also called on the Commission to investigate the “negligent” management of the Xunta de Galicia and, “if irregularities have been committed, to take action”. BNG MEP Ana Miranda, the driving force behind the debate, has asked to meet with both Sinkevicius and Transport Commissioner Adina Valean.

Importance of prevention

Portuguese socialist João Albuquerque, Parliament’s rapporteur for the negotiations on the bill, welcomed the Commission’s willingness to negotiate on the proposal. He stressed that the dumping on Spanish beaches should be a reminder of the “urgency” of legislation to contain “damage that can almost always be avoided” through strong preventive measures.

“We have all seen the images from the beaches of Galicia and that, once discharged, it is practically impossible to clean up the grains. Due to their size, it is difficult to take measures without environmental impact. Hence the importance of prevention,” he concluded.


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