The X-Press Pearl Cargo Ship Fire and the Environmental Disaster It Created

In May 2021 there was an ecological crisis that most people did not hear about, as it happened in the throes of the Covid pandemic. The cargo ship X-Press Pearl caught fire outside of Sri Lanka, spilling nearly 2,000 tonnes of plastic pellets and nearly 10,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals into the ocean water.

After the first wave of air pollution, the second wave of pollutants hit the beaches. It consisted of lost cargo, including billions of plastic pellets which are used to produce plastics. This incident has been described as the worst in Sri Lanka’s history.

On board the ship were 1,486 shipping containers. Of those, 81 were classified as dangerous goods such as nitric acid and caustic soda. The others have been reported to contain a mixture of several tonnes of potentially toxic epoxy resin, plastics, and oil, as well as metals such as lead and copper. Following the fire, the contents of the containers started to leak out into the environment. This led to fishing being prohibited in large areas along the coast, hundreds of dead turtles floating ashore, and tonnes and tonnes of waste filling the beaches.

According to the UN environmental advisory mission the ship carried 1,680 tonnes of plastic pellets. With a weight of approximately 0.02 g per pellet that equals to roughly 84 billion pellets. Although we do not know exactly how much of the pellets leaked out, the sheer amount indicates that it is the largest spill on record, ever. Initial modelling suggested that the spilled pellets would reach coastlines of Indonesia, Malaysia and to Somalia.

Despite massive clean-up efforts, it will not be possible to remove all the pellets from the environment and these are expected to have far-reaching consequences. Plastic pollution spills at sea and during land transport are becoming more common. The toxic nature of chemicals and additives in plastics means that the spills have a wide range of negative effects on the environment.

To learn more about this particular incident do check out the publication by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and the Centre for Environmental Justice Sri Lanka. (

IPEN: for a toxics-free future