Your first impression of Diane Wilson and her brigade of volunteer environmental activists might be that they're aging hippies, still fighting the establishment.
But here's the truth: They're battling a real problem that the plastics industry could start to solve tomorrow. They're on the right side of this issue, and more people had better start paying attention.
If you own or manage a plastics company and you don't take pellet pollution seriously, then learn from Formosa Plastics Corp.'s example. Because it could cost the company $160 million.
Wilson is a fourth-generation Texan who once made her living harvesting shrimp. She got turned on to environmental issues back in the 1980s, initially because of toxic waste in Lavaca Bay.
That didn't have anything to do with plastics. But Wilson fought against Formosa from the very beginning, starting when the Point Comfort plant was still under construction. I've seen her name pop up in news reports for years. She even wrote a book about her battle.
Now a 70-year-old grandmother of eight, Wilson turned her attention to pellet pollution about 10 years ago. It was at the urging of workers, and former workers, at Formosa Plastics.
At first, she told Plastics News' Steve Toloken, she took their concerns to federal and state environmental regulators. Unsatisfied with their response, she and a small team of volunteers started monitoring the plant's pellet and powder discharges herself.
Eventually she enlisted a legal aid nonprofit and filed a lawsuit against the company.
And she won. In Texas. In a case heard by a U.S. District Court judge who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. The judge even called Formosa a "serial offender" of the Clean Water Act.
Next up is the penalty phase. Wilson and her group are pushing for big fines. She's thinking more than $160 million, because the judge has already said there were 1,800 separate violations since 2016.
Wilson thinks her group's successful lawsuit can serve as a template for cases against other companies. That's not a far-fetched idea. Environmental groups are already filing lawsuits against companies that violate the Clean Water Act. You may recall that in 2018, three injection molders in California were targets.
Public awareness of pellet pollution is growing. Both the European Union's plastics strategy and the G7 bloc's plastics charter cited it as a significant problem. Earlier this year, the green investor group As You Sow filed shareholder resolutions asking Chevron, DowDuPont, ExxonMobil and Phillips 66 for annual reports on resin spills.
As You Sow feels that the plastics industry's voluntary program to fight pellet leakage, Operation Clean Sweep, doesn't go far enough. Operation Clean Sweep needs to be mandatory, and plastics companies need to provide more public data on resin spills, according to the group.
One final point: When President Donald Trump visited the under-construction Shell Chemical plant in Pennsylvania on Aug. 13, several media sources, including Quartz and Business Insider, published provocative stories that made a connection between the new plant and pellet pollution. Other media picked up those reports.
One headline said: "Tiny pellets called 'nurdles' are leeching into the ocean. A new Shell plant could produce 80 trillion of them a year."
A tenuous connection? Yes, but it's meant to alarm readers. Public awareness of pellet pollution is growing, environmental groups are paying attention (and potentially profiting), yet many companies don't even participate in what should be the bare minimum, an industry-sponsored voluntary program that would help them stop wasting material.
Pellets don't belong in Lavaca Bay or any other body of water. But researchers say pellets are the second most common type of microplastic found in fresh water. If everyone in the industry started following best practices to avoid pellet spills, that's a problem that we can solve.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.