“The Worst Marine Crisis in the Nation’s History”

As a cargo ship sinks offshore, toxic plastic pellets threaten Sri Lanka’s coast

What’s being called “the worst marine crisis in the nation’s history” is unfolding off the coast of Sri Lanka.

More than two weeks ago, a cargo ship carrying thousands of containers of toxic chemicals, oil and plastic pellets caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka. Now, the boat is beginning to sink, putting delicate ecosystems, critical fishing environments and the communities that depend on them in further peril.

An undetermined amount of nitric acid has already leaked from the ship and several tons of plastic pellets have been collected from nearby beaches. The tiny plastic pellets, or nurdles, are the building blocks of everyday plastic items, like bags or food containers. They’re also among the most common forms of microplastic pollution. They can adsorb chemicals—like nitric acid—and are easily consumed by marine life, making their way up the food chain and into human diets. The situation in Sri Lanka is particularly dire because of the number of pellets spilled, coupled with the fact that the spill occurred near-critical fishing grounds. More than 50 miles of coastline have been temporarily banned from fishing so far, dealing a major blow to the many fishers who rely on these waters for their livelihood.

As we’ve seen from past pellet spills, it can take a mammoth effort to clean up these microplastics. It took 7,000 volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up a spill of a similar magnitude in Hong Kong in 2012—and that didn’t have the complication of added chemical toxicity.

On top of all of this, the threat of an oil spill remains ever-present as the cargo ship begins to sink in earnest.

The situation is dire, and our thoughts are with the people of Sri Lanka as they deal with the fallout of this crisis. Ocean Conservancy has partnered with the Marine Environment Protection Authority in Sri Lanka for many years through the International Coastal Cleanup, and we are committed to doing our part to support them and the people of Sri Lanka in their cleanup efforts in the days, weeks and years to come.

This horrible tragedy serves as a stark reminder of the terrible risks inherent in our disposable plastics lifestyle and economy. Each year, roughly 139,000 metric tons of plastic pellets enter our ocean. The plastic items that they go on to make have an even greater impact, with more than a garbage truck’s worth of plastic polluting our waters every minute.

It’s also a reminder that this is not a problem created by Sri Lanka or a problem that they should face alone. As a global community, we must come together to assist in the cleanup of this catastrophe. And ultimately, to prevent future disasters like this we must reduce our reliance on and production of disposable, single-use plastics, period.

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