Plastic pellets wash up on the shores of Galicia and the Cantabrian Sea

Environmental organizations call for a more coordinated response and greater environmental transparency


  • Friends of the Earth, Ecologistas en Acción, Greenpeace, SEO/BirdLife and WWF are calling for greater coordination between authorities in response to the pellet spill from the ship Toconao that is reaching the coasts of Galicia and the Cantabrian Sea.
  • The organizations believe that the wide distribution of these microplastics and their potential impact on biodiversity require urgent and rigorous action, especially since there are indications of toxicity, as reported by the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office.


Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, January 9, 2024Millions of plastic balls less than 5 millimeters in size -pellets- have been washing up on the Galician coast for weeks and have now reached the coast of Asturias. A container containing 1,050 25-kilogram sacks of pellets fell off the Liberian-flagged ship Toconao off the Portuguese coast of Viana do Castelo on December 8.

In the face of this new ecological crisis, Friends of the Earth, Ecologistas en Acción, Greenpeace, SEO/BirdLife and WWF call on the authorities to coordinate the response to the oil spill, given its serious ecological consequences and the potential threat to human health due to signs of toxicity, as reported by the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office.

The environmental organizations describe the situation as critical for the environment. Once the Xunta (regional government) of Galicia (Camgal) has activated level 2 of the contingency plan, and Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country have activated their plans, the organizations are asking authorities to cooperate and tackle the environmental crisis and prevent managing the environmental crisis from becoming another nightmare.

Galicia’s new environmental crisis comes in the form of microplastics. PET plastic pellets are tiny balls (less than 5 millimeters) that are used as raw material to produce plastics. Millions of these pellets have washed up on the Galician coast for weeks. The problem has now spread to Asturias, while Cantabria and the Basque Country are in a pre-alert state and have already activated their emergency plans. The consequences of this new environmental crisis are still to be determined, but it illustrates the global problem caused by our dependence on plastics and shows the urgent need to approve the Global Treaty on Plastic Pollution currently being negotiated by the United Nations Working Group.

Microplastics: a serious threat 

Plastic pollution and other marine debris have become a major threat to marine ecosystems worldwide. Florida State University estimates that more than 17 million tons of plastic entered the world’s oceans in 2021, and that number increases every year. In Europe alone, it is estimated that approximately 160,000 tons of plastic pellets enter land and marine ecosystems each year, and according to The Guardian, 230,000 tons of plastic pellets enter the world’s oceans each year.

Microplastics in the oceans have a devastating impact on marine life and aquatic ecosystems. These tiny plastic fragments have infiltrated all levels of the marine food chain, from planktonic organisms to large marine mammals. This contamination results in everything from physical lesions, such as micro-injuries to internal tissues (known as «plasticosis»), to the bioaccumulation of toxic pollutants. It can also facilitate the entry of viruses and bacteria into the body as they attach to the microplastics. Pollution also alters the structure and function of marine ecosystems, affecting biodiversity and causing changes in species distribution.

Microplastics can come from a variety of sources. They can either be manufactured as such (as in the case of the pellets from Galicia) or result from the progressive degradation of larger plastics into smaller and smaller fragments.

The environmental organizations point out: «Given how difficult it is to recover plastic from the ocean and the length of time it persists in the environment, once it enters the ocean it is almost impossible to remove. In addition, plastic continues to break down into microplastics and then into nanoplastics, making it almost impossible to retrieve and affecting all marine organisms.»

The global treaty currently under discussion should provide for a global reduction in plastic production, eliminate the most environmentally hazardous additives from their formulation, reduce the use of single-use plastics and seek more sustainable alternative materials. Similarly, safety measures for container transportation should be strengthened to avoid accidents and the associated impacts.

In October 2023, the European Commission published a proposal to reduce microplastic pollution, including this type of pellet. According to the environmental organizations, the proposal lacks the ambition to minimize plastic pollution. However, if the European Parliament and the member states act responsibly, there is an opportunity to create a regulation that matches the magnitude of the problem.

In light of the environmental crisis on the Galician coasts, the organizations demand:

1. Strengthening collaboration between authorities

The presence of the plastic pellets was known since the 13th of December, but the Xunta activated the Territorial Contingency Plan for Accidental Marine Pollution (CAMGAL) on the 5th of January, and it was not until today that the emergency was raised to the level warranted by the situation. Protocols are in place to be implemented when circumstances require. Given the distribution of the pellets and the difficulty and urgency to clean them up, it is positive that the new emergency level allows the reinforcement of clean-up teams, as done in Asturias.

The Territorial Contingency Plan for Accidental Marine Pollution should have been activated as soon as the first news of the spill broke, or when quantities of microplastics started washing up on the Galician coast almost a month ago.

2. Greater transparency and information

The environmental organizations are concerned about Xunta de Galicia’s response to the spill, which is sadly reminiscent of its response to the Prestige oil spill in 2002 and 2003, and the lack of coordination with the Spanish national government. The organizations demand scientific rigor and transparency from the Xunta. The Galician government must rely on the expertise of the prestigious marine pollution research groups established in Galicia.

The organizations believe the disaster must not be used in a partisan way, and forces must be joined to fight the long-term effects of the spill, to clarify responsibilities, and to strengthen regulations on the production, transport, and consumption of plastics.

3. Improve coordination and implement best practices in spill cleanup

If cleanup operations are not carried out according to the type of habitat affected, the environmental impact can be aggravated, as we have seen in many other marine pollution disasters. CAMGAL regulates the performance of volunteers in cleanup operations, distinguishing between professional volunteers at sea and non-professional volunteers on land. Both professional and volunteer cleanup teams must be well coordinated, supervised by decontamination experts, and follow established recommendations.

4.Track long-term environmental impact

The damage to the ecosystem caused by this spill is another environmental pressure on Galician waters. We must take into account the lessons learned from the Prestige and other environmental disasters, and adequately monitor the presence and impact of the pellets on the ecosystem and its wildlife in the long term. Authorities also need to identify possible habitat restoration measures. Measures such as monitoring beaches for the presence of plastics (using tools such as the Marnoba App) and stranded fauna (with the ICAO App), and conducting systematic necropsies on stranded fauna, should be carried out systematically in order to properly contextualize these problems. These measures can also help assess the environmental damage and possible compensation to be paid by the companies responsible for the spill.

5. Investigation and accountability 

Environmental organizations applaud the decision of the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office to open a judicial investigation due to signs of toxicity and possible environmental crimes. They believe that the shipping company that owns the Liberian-flagged container ship Toconao should not go unpunished for the alleged environmental crime and should at least pay for the cleanup, according to the «polluter pays» principle.

¡ Comparte !