When ‘palm oil’ washes ashore: Answers to a sticky question

When ‘palm oil’ washes ashore: Answers to a sticky question

They’re the pale, greasy lumps – like giant chunks of earwax – that wash up on our shore from time to time. Often described as 'palm oil', they sometimes prompt newspaper headlines and warnings to keep clear. But what exactly are these substances? The experts at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s Counter Pollution and Salvage team have the answers to your questions.
Man in high vis carefully examining a white substance on rocky pebbles

What is ‘palm oil’?

Palm oil is a vegetable product that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. It’s used in food and cosmetics but, once in the sea, it can form solid lumps that then, potentially, washes up on shore.

However, we often see observations of various waxy solids on the shoreline wrongly being referred to as ‘palm oil’. Palm oil can appear very similar to other solidified vegetable oils, and it’s usually only through laboratory testing that we can know for sure. That’s why we usually refer to it officially only as a waxy/oily substance, before we can be certain.

A Coastguard rescue officer inspects possible palm oil on a rocky beach


Are vegetable oils dangerous?

Because it’s hard to know exactly what these substances are when they wash up, it’s best to be cautious, steer clear and to keep children away. Dog walkers are always advised to keep their pets on a lead on the coast – partly to avoid inquisitive bites of unknown material bringing on tummy troubles or worse.


How does it get into the sea?

Vegetable oils are regularly transported around the world by ship. Before a new product is put aboard, sometimes crews are permitted to flush out residue in a vessel’s storage tanks at sea to avoid contaminating the next delivery. Particularly in the cold waters around the UK, vegetable oils can solidify and later wash ashore – even if they originally entered the sea many miles from land.


What should I do if I see an oil / waxy solid substance on the shoreline?

You can report sightings of any shoreline pollution to the relevant local authority – usually the local council – or by dialling 999 and asking for the Coastguard. Either council workers or a Coastguard Rescue Team will attend to start the process of identifying what it is, any risks, and a clean-up, if necessary.



Whose job is it to respond?

Public agencies will support each other but it is the responsibility of the landowner – usually the relevant local authority – to arrange testing and removal, if required.

If alerted to a report of vegetable oil, HM Coastguard will sometimes respond first by sending a Coastguard Rescue Team who might pick up some samples and make the public aware.

Where appropriate, the MCA will also issue a pollution report to notify other regulatory organisations about a potential incident. It’s unlikely a full investigation would be launched, however, due to the difficulty of tracing material that might have floated hundreds of miles.

If the pollutant has arrived into coastal water from land-based activities, the Environment Agency takes the lead in England. In Scotland it’s the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and in Wales it’s Natural Resources Wales. In Northern Ireland it’s the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.


What are the rules around discharging palm oil into the sea?

Global regulations from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – of which the UK is a key member – allow some substances to be discharged from ships. However after changes in legislation as of 1 January 2021, in European waters the bulk residue of palm oil is no longer allowed to be discharged into the sea. Depending on what substance they are carrying, crews must obey rules that regulate activity depending on the nature of the material and distance from land or protected areas, such as the North Sea, Mediterranean and Antarctic.

Link to MARPOL amendments here.


How are suspected rule breaches investigated?

The MCA is committed to protecting the environment and will always seek to bring a case against a vessel suspected of illegal discharges.

Tracing the origin of washed-up substances is difficult, however, as they might have drifted over a long period and for many miles before arriving on land. The ship involved may not even have passed through UK waters or visited a UK port, and testing is unlikely to reveal its source.

One way of tracking pollution is by satellite detections – unnatural wave patterns are often a clue. Most of these in UK waters turn out to be permitted tank discharges but they are still investigated by the MCA to find the source and determine legality.

Actions can include vessel surveyors carrying out an investigation of a suspected ship when next in port, sending out a surveillance aircraft to gather evidence, or requesting the operator provide evidence of proper processes.


Do operators ever get prosecuted?

Pretty Time Shipping (2011) and Maersk Tankers Singapore (2013) have been prosecuted and fined by the MCA for illegally discharging palm oil in UK waters. Also, although they did not involve palm oil, examples of countries working together were when the MCA assisted a US prosecution of MT Maersk Kiera in 2013 and MS Caribbean Princess in 2017 for breaching marine pollution regulations.


Can the rules be tightened?

Backed by the UK, the IMO is working to address the issue of residues of other vegetable oils, like palm oil, being discharged at sea. New regulations came into force in 2021 requiring cargo tanks that have been emptied of certain substances to be pre-washed before departure, to limit the residue of these substances being washed into the environment during permitted discharges at sea. This change is aimed at those substances with physical characteristics which are likely to make some of the residue washings solidify when discharged into cold waters, and includes products such as palm oil. If other substances, including vegetable oils, are identified as causing a risk to public health or the marine environment, then future regulations may address these in a similar way.


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