Brightly coloured plastic debris from the UK has been washing up along the coast of Maine in the US after a shipment bound for incineration fell into the sea.
The plastic debris, part of a 10,000-tonne consignment from Re-Gen Waste, a company based in Newry, Northern Ireland, has infuriated environmentalists and locals surprised to learn that the north-eastern state of Maine is importing plastic from almost 3,000 miles away.
Volunteers struggling to clear the waste from the shoreline of Sears Island, alongside a company employed to tackle it, fear they are fighting a losing battle as more plastic washes up with every tide.
Politicians and environmentalists say the US, which is the world’s biggest producer of plastic waste, should not be importing more plastic. They are concerned about the potential effects on wildlife in Penobscot Bay, home to one of Maine’s first commercial lobster fisheries.
“This event was an unfortunate and preventable accident and speaks to a larger issue, that is, how we process trash,” Genevieve McDonald, a Democratic representative in the Maine legislature, said.
“We should not be in a position where any facility needs to import trash. This came as a surprise to me because I know how much plastic we create in the US.”
McDonald, who is a commercial lobster boat captain and sits on Maine’s marine resource committee, said she was also concerned about the effect of the waste on the area’s wildlife, as well as on the lobster fishery, “a cornerstone of our marine economy here in Maine”.
In a statement, Re-Gen Waste said it was “distressed” to learn of the “unacceptable and entirely preventable” incident. The bales of what it called “waste to energy fuel”, which is diverted from landfill, were being transferred from the MV Sider London cargo ship to Mack Port in Searsport during a storm on 2 December.
During the transfer, by Sprague Energy terminal, two bales fell into Penobscot Bay. One of the bales could not be retrieved, it said, and high winds blew the plastic on to the north-west side of Sears Island. The rest of the consignment was transferred to Penobscot Energy Recovery Company (Perc) in the town of Orrington, to be used to generate electricity.
The Re-Gen Waste statement said: “We have been active in the interim, working closely with Searsport’s town manager, Sprague Energy terminal and Penobscot Energy Recovery Co, to ensure that every measure possible is employed, to redress the situation.
“A crew from Clean Harbors in Hampden was deployed to clean up the plastic that accumulated on the north-west corner of Sears Island, and students from the Maine Ocean School were mobilised to do a further sweep of the shoreline last Friday.
Re-Gen Waste said it had shipped between 80,000 and 100,000 tonnes of waste into Europe and across the world and this was the first time an “offloading incident” had been reported by a port. The Guardian contacted Sprague Energy and Perc for comment but neither has yet responded.
Ron Huber, a conservationist and executive director of Friends of Penobscot Bay, said he had already been concerned about waste from New York and other parts of New England coming to Maine. “Now we’re getting Europe’s waste as well? This is a real disincentive to reduce waste: ‘Oh we’ll just take your waste and burn it.'”
He said the area was important for wildlife, including moose and deer, and that the bay was host to fish nurseries.
“So many citizens are out there picking up the waste. But the whole thing is a comedy of errors. It shouldn’t have been a week before the agencies responded. They should have nets to make sure waste bales don’t fall into the sea.”
Jim Valette, an anti-waste campaigner who runs Material Research, a “low-profit” company, said the consignment was the biggest export to the US he had seen: “It’s usually going the other way. It’s outrageous it has come to us to clean up Europe’s mess.”
On average, 1,300 containers are lost at sea every year, according to the World Shipping Council.
From 1 January, controls on transboundary waste will be tightened under the Basel convention, a treaty covering waste shipments between nearly 190 governments, including the UK. The US has signed but not ratified the convention, but the regulations are expected to affect how it trades in plastic waste.