Durbin Introduces Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act To Address Pollution In Great Lakes

CHICAGO – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) today joined officials from the Shedd Aquarium and the Alliance for the Great Lakes to announce the introduction of the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) to prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets and other pre-production plastic into waterways from facilities and sources that make, use, package, or transport pellets.  The pellets are being consumed by fish and marine life—and in turn, humans—and create additional damage to ecosystems.

“The COVID pandemic has driven a 40 percent increase in the use of plastic packaging, including single use plastics for carryout food containers and packages containing our online shopping purchases. Unfortunately, only nine percent of all plastics end up being recycled, with some of the waste ending up in landfills or incinerated—and far too much of it finding its way into our rivers, lakes, and oceans,” Durbin said. “The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act is an important step in addressing the plastic problem that is plaguing our beloved Lake Michigan and the first of several steps I plan to take this year to improve the Great Lakes and the surrounding communities.”

Plastic pellets, or nurdles, are the pre-production building blocks of nearly all plastic goods.  Due to the low cost of producing these pellets, they are often washed down drains or dumped if they come in contact with other materials like dust and dirt.  They are also often spilled both in the shipping and production process—eventually finding their way into our waterways and ending up in the Great Lakes.

Each year, it is estimated plastic pellet pollution contributes significantly to the 22 million tons of plastic that end up in the Great Lakes each year.  The shorelines of the Great Lakes are littered with plastic pellets, with 42 of 66 beaches on all five Great Lakes recording significant pollution levels of these pellets (19.1 pellets per m2).  These pellets not only are showing up on beaches, but are building up on the bottom of the lakes and are being consumed by fish and marine life. Plastic pollution has become so prevalent, a recent study showed that the average person ingests approximately five grams of plastic each week – the equivalent of a credit card. 

Approximately 250,000 tons of plastic pellets end up in the oceans annually. It is estimated that by 2025, more than 4.5 billion pounds of plastic packaging will be used annually—nearly double the amount used this past year. 

“Lake Michigan and the broader Great Lakes basin is the home to 10,000 miles of shoreline, adjacent streams and rivers, as well as magnificent bounty of diverse aquatic wildlife. However, the shorelines of these lakes are littered with industrial plastic pellets. As our teams at Shedd Aquarium take to Chicago-area beaches to clean up litter, we’ve seen and collected these pellets first-hand,” said Andrea Densham, senior director of government affairs and conservation policy at Shedd Aquarium. “Now is the time to act to prevent pollution from entering our waterways in the first place. With Senator Durbin’s leadership, the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act will put science-driven solutions into action today and preserve our vital waterways and source of drinking water.”