Surfing a white tide: The political consequences of a plastic spill
Brais Freire Braña
Today, environmental issues have gained unprecedented prominence on the global political agenda. From the climate crisis to sustainable resource management, concern for the environment has become a central issue at all political levels. Local, national and international governments are facing increasing pressure to address environmental challenges to ensure long-term sustainability and respond to the demands of citizens who are increasingly aware of the importance of nature’s protection. These issues not only have direct implications for quality of life, but have also acquired significant weight in electoral decisions, demonstrating that effective environmental action has become an inescapable political imperative. The Atlantic region of Galicia has emerged in the last month as an illustrating example of this very phenomenon.
The Galician pellet crisis
It is estimated that up to six containers fell from the ship Toconao off the north coast of Portugal, generating a "white tide" of plastic pellets that has affected numerous coastal communities since December 13th, alongside the coasts of the Spanish northwestern region of Galicia. Whereas one of the containers was carrying 26 tonnes of pellets, others were carrying products such as cling film, tires and tomato sauce. The situation has prompted an investigation, and there are concerns about the possible spread of the spill eastward along the coast across the European Atlantic shores.
Hundreds of beaches along the Galician coast have been affected, becoming a challenging scenario for dedicated volunteers working tirelessly day and night. The magnitude of the disaster is showcased by the hundreds of thousands of tiny pellets on the shores, creating an alarming situation that demands immediate response from all political levels. The difficulty of the cleaning process, as these microplastics are only as wide as 5 mm, has been highlighted by workers on the ground. Consequently, volunteers have been diligently scouring the sand, employing makeshift tools like strainers, nets or baskets to filter the water in their quest to locate these elusive plastics.
The Spanish government's response has been put into question by the regional Galician government, which has accused the national government of not informing local authorities for two weeks, as well as for not activating a marine pollution plan. Yet, despite the urgency of the situation, the absence of aid from the regional government of Galicia has also generated criticism. Accusations regarding efforts to manipulate public opinion have been widespread. It has been pointed out that workers sent by the government to appear on a regional television news program, apparently dedicated to the clean-up, turned out to be temporary participants set up for the recording, in an attempt to show the efficiency of the regional government’s tackling of the crisis.
The plastics crisis evokes the environmental disaster of 2002 when the Prestige, an oil tanker, disintegrated off the Galician coast, spilling more than 60,000 tons of heavy fuel. Although authorities claim that the current pellets are non-toxic, there are fears that large-scale contamination could threaten wildlife, the environment and the local fishing industry which is, in turn, one of the main sectorial industries of the region, which holds to this day over 49% of all the Spanish vessel fleet. This incident highlights the vulnerability of the coasts to maritime accidents and the importance of an effective response to avoid devastating consequences.
Political echoes of an environmental tragedy: the national and regional scene
National and regional political implications loom large over the plastic pellet crisis, especially with upcoming regional elections scheduled on February 18th. Currently, the Partido Popular (PP/EPP) holds a majority in Galicia, despite being in the opposition at the national level. The party leader, Alberto Núñez Feijoo, left the presidency of the Xunta de Galicia to lead the conservative party nationally and won the general elections last summer. However, he was unable to secure a majority due to a coalition between the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE/S&D) and both national left-wing and regional nationalist parties, including the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG/Greens-EFA). The populares aspire to retain control of the regional government, while polls suggest the possibility of a left-wing nationalist-led coalition, led by BNG’s leader, Ana Pontón and supported by the Galician branch of the Spanish Socialist Party, potentially ending 15 years of conservative rule in a region that is considered, to this day, one of the Popular Party’s political strongholds.
Amidst this political backdrop, the interim president, Alfonso Rueda, and his government have faced controversy with various conflicting statements, including denying knowledge of the spill as of January 6th. Nonetheless, as previously stated, there is evidence of formal communication vis a vis the Spanish Ministry of Transport and Sustainable Mobility on December 18th informing the Galician Department for the Seas of the incident. In addition, the regional government issued a communiqué pointing to the municipalities as the competent ones in the cleanup processes, overlooking the local administrations' resource shortage. These instances have sparked debates over the perceived mishandling of the crisis. The Spanish Socialist Party, currently in third place in Galicia, is actively campaigning, with frequent visits from Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. The plastic pellet crisis could become a decisive factor in determining the region's political landscape.
A “white tide” that has reached Strasbourg: the European scale of the crises
At the European level, the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevicius, has expressed his deep concern about the dumping of 25 tonnes of plastic pellets on the Galician coast. The Commissioner stressed that this emergency represents a significant threat to the marine environment and economic activities such as fishing. Sinkevicius has shared his unease through his social networks, accompanying his message with images of the small plastic balls that are invading the beaches of the region.
The Lithuanian commissioner has expressed his desire to discuss how the European Union can provide the best possible help in this critical situation. He also stressed the importance of the European Commission's proposed rules on pellet losses and international action as key elements in combating plastic pollution in the future.
These statements come after the Galician MEPs Nicolás González Casares, of the PSOE, and Ana Miranda, of the BNG, have requested a meeting with the Commissioner, seeking to address the issue at European level. In consequence, the European Parliament held a plenary debate on January 18th to discuss the dumping of pellets on the Galician shores in Strasbourg. This European approach highlights the need for a coordinated and joint response to deal with the transboundary consequences of environmental incidents of this magnitude.
In fact, the European Union had already considered the issue of plastic pellets in its legislative proposal to address the proliferation of these elements. Plastic pellets, classified as microplastics due to their nature and size, have generated growing public and scientific concern regarding pollution. The proposal focuses on addressing one of the sources of unintentional release of microplastics, identifying pellets as the third largest source of these pollutants in the environment, with an estimated 52 to 184 thousand tonnes lost annually according to 2019 data.
This legislative approach highlights the EU's mobilization to address the issue of pellets, recognized as raw material for the manufacturing of plastic products, and seeks to prevent their spread across natural environments. The Commission's preliminary study highlights the difficulty of capturing pellets once released, their mobility and their detrimental impact on biodiversity, ecosystems and possibly human health. The initiative also points to the lack of awareness along the supply chain, the absence of economic incentives to reduce pellet losses and the lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework addressing pellet handling throughout the supply chain. In this context, the current crisis on the Galician coast underlines the urgency of addressing these issues at national and European level to prevent future environmental impact.