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Plastic pellets inside a dead fish washed ashore on a beach near Wellawatta, Sri Lanka.

WSri Lanka was worried that the 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil contained in the X-Press Pearl containership caught on fire and sank in May in the Indian Ocean. This could have caused an environmental disaster for its coral reefs, fishing industry, and fishery.

Sri Lanka has been classified by the UN worst maritime disasterThe heavy fuel oil did not have the greatest impact. It was also not the hazardous chemicals aboard, which included nitric, caustic soda, and methanol. According to the UN, the most serious harm was caused by the accidental spillage of 87 containers containing plastic pellets of lentil size: Nurdles.

Since the disaster, thousands of nurdles have been washing up along the country’s coastline in their billions. Landfalls along Indian Ocean coasts from Indonesia to Malaysia to Somalia. Some places can reach 2 metres in depth. They were found in the mouths of fish and dead dolphins. The ocean was flooded with 1,680 tonnes worth of nurdles. According to the Associated Press, it was the largest ever recorded plastic spillage. UN report.

The little-known building block of all our plastic products are the Nurdles. The tiny beads can also be made of polyethylene or polypropylene, as well as polystyrene and polyvinylchloride. They can sink or float depending on their density and whether they are in freshwater or saltwater.

They are often mistakenly thought to be food by seabirds, fish, and other wildlife. They can also be broken down into nanoparticles, which present a greater risk. They are second in the ocean’s largest source of micropollutants by weight after tyre dust. Each year, 230,000 tonnes of nurdles end-up in the oceans.

Plastic pellets inside a dead fish washed ashore on a beach near Wellawatta, Sri Lanka.
Plastic pellets found in a dead fish washed on the beach at Wellawatta, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Saman Abesiriwardana/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Nurdles, which are similar to crude oil, are persistent pollutants that will continue to circulate in the ocean currents and wash up on shores for decades. They are also known as Toxic sponges attract chemical toxins– and other pollutants on their surfaces.

The pellets themselves are a mixture chemicals. They are fossil fuels. Tom Gammage, an international campaign group at the Environmental Investigation Agency, (EIA), says that they are a mixture. They act as toxic sponges. Many toxic chemicals, including those from Sri Lanka, are hydrophobic. [repel water]So they gather on the surface microplastics.

He claims that pollutants can be one million times more concentrated on pellets than in water. Lab studies have shown that some pollutants can be released into the water when fish eat a pellet.

A bowl of nurdles collected on a beach
The Nurdles were collected at Briones beach, Spain. The plastic pellets act like toxic sponges, attracting other chemicals to their surfaces.Photograph by K Berger/PA

One study showed that nurdles can also act as rafts for harmful bacteria like E.coli and cholera. They transport them from sewage outfalls to agricultural runoff to swimming waters and shellfish beds. Plastic rafting is a growing phenomenon.

Unlike other substances like petrol, diesel, and kerosene however, nurdles are not considered hazardous under the International Maritime Organizations’ (IMOs) dangerous good code for safe storage and handling. This is despite plastic pellets posing a threat to our environment for over 30 years, as documented in a 1993 report. Report from the US Environmental Protection AgencyHow the plastics industry could reduce spillages

Now, environmentalists and the Sri Lankan government are working together to transform the X-Press Pearl tragedy into a catalyst of change.

Almost 50,000 people signed the Sri Lankan call for nurdles that be classified as hazardous products at the IMOs Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting in London this Week. Petition. Gammage says that there is no way to stop the same thing from happening in Sri Lanka again.

Last year, there were at most two nurdle spillages. A container on the cargo ship MV Trans Carrier was broken and lost in the North Sea 10 tonnes of pellets, which washed up along the coasts of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. In South Africa, there was a spillage in August 2020. An accident in 2018 that affected as much as 1,250 miles (2,000 km) of coastline. Only 23% of 49 tonnes that were accidentally spilled were ever recovered. 2019 342 containers of plastic pellets were dumped into the North Sea.

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The danger posed by these tiny pellets is being recognized more and more. Two environmental activists in the US were arrested last year for terrorizing a lobbyist in the plastics industry. They left a box of nurdles outside the victim’s house as part a campaign to prevent Formosa Plastics, a Taiwan-based company, from opening a Louisiana factory.

The nurdles were allegedly from another Formosa Texas plant that had poured large amounts of the pellets into Lavaca Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. Formosa agreed to pay $50m for a settlement of a lawsuit claiming that it violated the Clean Water Act. The 15-year sentence that was imposed on the activists was later dropped.

A dead sea turtle washed ashore on the beach at Ratmalana, Sri Lanka.
A dead sea turtle washed up on the shores of Ratmalana in Sri Lanka. The spillage is believed to have killed 470 turtles as well as 46 dolphins and eight whales. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

Campaigners argue that such incidents can be avoided. Hemantha Withanage is the director of the Centre for Environmental Justice Sri Lanka. He said that the X-Press Pearl’s sinking and the release of chemical products as well as plastic pellets into the oceans of Sri Lanka caused immense damage to marine life, and also destroyed local livelihoods. He says that 40% of Sri Lankans now rely on fish as their main source of protein. It was a tragic accident and unfortunately, there is no guidance by the IMO.

The shipping conditions for nurdles that are classified as hazardous would be the same as for explosives, liquids flammables, and other environmentally dangerous substances. Tanya Cox (marine plastic specialist at Flora & Fauna International) says they must be stored below deck in a stronger packaging with clear labelling. They would also be subjected to disaster-response protocol that can, if applied in an emergency situation, prevent the worst environmental impact.

The IMO secretariat has referred the matter to its pollution prevention and response committee, which will meet next year. Campaigners expressed disappointment that the Sri Lankan proposal wasn’t properly discussed. Christina Dixon, EIAs, stated that the attitude of the members of the committee was extraordinary. It showed a disregard for plastic pollution from shipping as a threat coastal communities, ecosystems, and food security. This is unacceptable.

The cleanup in Sri Lanka continues. Withanage claims that some of the 470 turtles and 46 dolphins that were washed up on the beaches had nurdles. Although there isn’t any proof that the nurdles were responsible for the deaths, Withanage said: I’ve seen dolphins that had plastic particles inside. There are more than 20,000 families that have to stop fishing.

Fisherman say that when they dip, [themselves]The pellets go into their ears when they fall into the water. It has affected everything.

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