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Industrial plastic pellets spilling into Fraser River, Salish Sea: environmental group

An environmental group claims it's found thousands of plastic pellets in the Fraser River and Salish Sea. Nadia Stewart explains how they got there and how the province is responding.

An environmental group says it has found evidence that large numbers of pellets used in industrial plastic production are spilling into B.C. waterways.

The Surfrider Foundation Canada says a three-year study has found that thousands of the pellets, linked to Metro Vancouver plastic manufacturers, are getting into storm drains which feed into the Fraser River and Salish Sea.

READ MORE: Plastics in our oceans – How one Canadian is trying to clean up

The pellets, known as “nurdles,” are made from plastic polymers and are used in the production of items like single-use plastic bags and water bottles.

Surfrider’s study suggests the nurdles have made it as far as the west coast of Vancouver Island, and shows high concentrations of the pellets on the Sunshine Coast, Gulf Islands and Fraser estuary.

Surfrider Foundation
Surfrider Foundation Surfrider Foundation

“These spills are occurring in parking lots, rail sidings and near factories, and we have documented these in storm drains drainage channels which lead to the Fraser River and the Salish Sea,” said Surfrider spokesperson Kristina Lee.

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“We’ve been urging the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to monitor and investigate spills of these pre-consumer plastics.”

READ MORE: Would you pay a higher bottle deposit to keep plastic out of the ocean?

The organization says its investigation has found hundreds of thousands of the pellets clustered around a dozen Metro Vancouver plastic industry sites. However, it is not naming names.

“We aren’t focusing at this time on specific [manufacturing] companies,” said Lee.

“Our interactive map does show that it’s an plastic industry-wide problem in general. While we can’t say there is one particular site that is polluting the most, it’s a widespread problem that must be addressed by both industry and the province.”

B.C. environmental group sounds the alarm over plastic pellets pouring into the Fraser River
B.C. environmental group sounds the alarm over plastic pellets pouring into the Fraser River

In a statement, the Ministry of Environment thanked the Surfrider Foundation for bringing the issue to its attention, and said it hadn’t received any calls to its Report All Poachers and Polluters line about plastic pellets entering the Fraser estuary.

“The Province is working to reduce plastics in the marine environment. Parliamentary Secretary Sheila Malcolmson is looking into ways we can clean up marine debris and tackle the growing problem of marine plastics,” said the statement.

“Discharge of pollution to the environment is prohibited under the Environmental Management Act.”

READ MORE: New federal program aims to clean up oceans, reel in ‘ghost gear’

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The ministry said it was looking into the issue to determine next steps, but added that marine protection is a cross-jurisdictional issue, and that storm drain design is a municipal issue.

Global News has requested comment from Metro Vancouver.

According to the United Nations, eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into oceans every year, and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.