I read an article in The Guardian this week that was describing something as toxic as an oil spill — nurdles — and I was appalled and motivated to further raise awareness about these. Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets that are floating in the ocean. There are billions of them. Strangely, though, they are not classified as hazardous.
The article led with the X-Pres Pearl container ship disaster that happened in May in Sri Lanka. The ship caught on fire and sank in the Indian Ocean. Officials were worried about the vessel’s 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil spilling into the ocean, and the United Nations classified this as the worst maritime disaster in history.
However, the largest impact wasn’t caused by the heavy fuel. It wasn’t even caused by the hazardous chemicals onboard, which The Guardian noted included nitric acid, caustic soda, and methanol. The most significant harm according to the UN, came from the spillage of nurdles. There were 87 containers full of these lentil-sized plastic pellets, which are now wreaking havoc on our oceans and shorelines.
GroundViews noted that nurdles have been found along an approximately 300-km stretch of coastline along the west and southwest Indian Ocean going from Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia. In some areas, they are up to two meters deep. They’ve already been found in the bodies of dead dolphins and mouths of fish. In total, around 1,680 tonnes of nurdles were released into the ocean, which the UN noted makes it the largest plastic spill in history.
Tom Gammage, from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), told The Guardian that these pellets were a mix of chemicals and that they are at essence fossil fuels. Unfortunately, one big problem is that these nurdles also attract other pollutants to an extreme degree.
“But they act as toxic sponges. A lot of toxic chemicals — which in the case of Sri Lanka are already in the water — are hydrophobic [repel water], so they gather on the surface of microplastics.
“Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of pellets than in the water.
“And we know from lab studies that when a fish eats a pellet, some of those pollutants come loose.”
Nurdles Should Be Classified As Hazardous
The article noted that, unlike kerosene, diesel, and petrol, nurdles are not classified as hazardous under the International Maritime Organization’s dangerous goods code for safe handling and storage. And what’s worse is that this organization is well aware of the threat to the environment that nurdles pose. There’s a report from 1993 by the US Environmental Protection Agency that details such in its how-to on reducing the plastics industry’s spillages.
This isn’t the only nurdle spill either. The Guardian pointed out that two happened last year. One in the North Sea resulted in a spillage of 100 tonnes of pellets. These washed up on the coasts of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The other one was off the coast of South Africa. That spill affected up to 1,250 miles of coastline and only 23% of the 49 tonnes spilled has been recovered. Also in 2019, another 342 containers of nurdles were spilled into the North Sea.
As cleanup continues in Sri Lanka, several of the turtles, dolphins, and whales washing ashore have had nurdles in their bodies. The article interviewed Hemantha Withanage, director of the Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka, who spoke about the untold damage to marine life. Withanage also noted that some of the dolphins had plastic particles inside despite there being no evidence that nurdles were responsible for their deaths. Yet thousands of families depending on fishing have had to stop fishing because these pellets get into their ears.
The article is a must-read, so I suggest you do so.
Forward From Here
This is incredibly horrifying. The article had images of these nurdles in a bowl and in the mouths of a fish, and in the latter photo, I counted at least 30 in the mouth of that fish. Marine life are literally choking on these things. And we wonder how manmade microplastics found their way into a human placenta for the first time just last year.
I think this is where companies such as The Ocean Cleanup will help make a positive impact. I recently wrote about The Ocean Cleanup, which is focusing on cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The nonprofit announced the completion of its System 002 test campaign, which is designed to concentrate the plastic and allow it to be collected and removed in large quantities.
The garbage patch is a mix of large and small plastics, including microscopic particles also known as microplastics. Perhaps The Ocean Cleanup can be of assistance in helping to clean up nurdle spills. If its systems can easily collect large and small pieces of plastics that are so small that they are on the level of microplastics, then it should have no issue collecting nurdles.
An idea is to design a specific system that can be deployed to the site of a spill in time. It could collect the nurdles and prevent the pollution and deaths of marine life.
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