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The Worst Toxic Waste You’ve Probably Never Heard of – Mother Jones

The Worst Toxic Waste You’ve Probably Never Heard of – Mother Jones

The Worst Toxic Waste You’ve Probably Never Heard of – Mother Jones

Plastic pellets can be found on the beach.Getty Images

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This story was originally published in the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When the X-Press pearl is revealedA container ship caught on fire and was sunk in the Indian Ocean in May. Sri Lanka was terrified that the vessel’s 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil would spill into the ocean, causing an environmental disaster for the country’s pristine coral reefs and fishing industry.

Classified by the UN as Sri Lanka’s “worst maritime disaster, the biggest impact was not caused by the heavy fuel oil. It was also not the heavy fuel oil that caused the most damage. The most “significant” harm, according to the UN, came from the spillage of 87 containers full of lentil-sized plastic pellets: nurdles.

Since the disaster, nurdles have been washing up in their billions along hundreds of miles of the country’s coastline, and are expected to make landfall across Indian Ocean coastlines from Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia. Some places can reach 2 meters deep. They were found in the bodies and mouths of dead dolphins. Around 1,680 tonnes of nurdles was released into the sea. According to the The Guardian, it is the worst plastic spillage in history. UN report.

Nurdles, the colloquial term for “pre-production plastic pellets,” are the little-known building block for all our plastic products. These tiny beads can also be made from 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 believed to be food for seabirds, fish, or other wildlife. They can also be broken down into nanoparticles, which present a greater risk. They are the second-largest source for micropollutants in oceans, after tyre powder. Each year, 230,000 tons of nurdles end-up in the oceans.

Nurdles, like crude oil and other persistent pollutants, will continue to circulate through the ocean currents and wash ashore for many decades. They can also be found in the environment. “toxic sponges,” which attract chemical toxins and other pollutants on to their surfaces.

“The pellets themselves are a mixture of chemicals—they are fossil fuels,” says Tom Gammage, at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international campaign group. “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 microplastics.

“Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of pellets than in the water,” he says. “And we know from lab studies that when a fish eats a pellet, some of those pollutants come loose.” Like crude oil, nurdles are highly persistent pollutants, and will continue to circulate in ocean currents and wash ashore for decades. They are also extremely persistent. “toxic sponges,” which attract chemical toxins and other pollutants on to their surfaces.

“The pellets themselves are a mixture of chemicals—they are fossil fuels,” says Tom Gammage, at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international campaign group. “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 microplastics.

“Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of pellets than in the water,” he says. “And we know from lab studies that when a fish eats a pellet, some of those pollutants come loose.”

Yet nurdles, unlike substances such as kerosene, diesel and petrol, are not deemed hazardous under the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) dangerous goods code for safe handling and storage. This is despite plastic pellets posing a threat to our environment for over 30 years, as documented in a 1993 study. report from the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency on how the plastics industry could reduce spillages.

Environmentalists and the Sri Lankan government are now working together to transform the X-Press Pearl tragedy into a catalyst of change. When the IMO’s marine environment protection committee met in London this week, Sri Lanka’s call for nurdles to be classified as hazardous goods attracted public support, with more than 50,000 people signing a petition. “There is nothing to stop what happened in Sri Lanka happening again,” says Gammage.

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 tons of pelletsThe oil washed up on the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish coasts. In South Africa, there was a spillage in August 2020. an accident in 2018, which affected up to 1,250 miles of coastline. Only 23 percent were able to recover the 49 tons of spilled material. 2019 342 containers of plastic pellets spilled into the North Sea.

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The threat posed tiny pellets pose is becoming more widely known. Two environmental activists in the US were arrested last year. charged under a Louisiana state law with “terrorizing” a plastics industry lobbyistWhen they left a box containing nurdles at his house as part a campaign to stop Formosa Plastics from opening a Louisiana factory.

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

Campaigners argue that such incidents are preventable. “The sinking of the X-Press Pearl—and spill of chemical products and plastic pellets into the seas of Sri Lanka—caused untold damage to marine life and destroyed local livelihoods,” says Hemantha Withanage, director of the Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka. He says that the 40 percent of Sri Lankans who rely on fish for their protein has seen a drastic drop in consumption. “It was a huge accident and unfortunately there’s no guidance from the IMO.”

Classifying nurdles as hazardous—as is the case for explosives, flammable liquids, and other environmentally harmful substances—would make them subject to strict conditions for shipping. “They must be stored below deck, in more robust packaging with clear labeling,” says Tanya Cox, marine plastic specialist at the conservation charity Flora & Fauna International. “They would also be subject to disaster-response protocols that can, if implemented in the event of an emergency, prevent the worst environmental impacts.”

The IMO secretariat referred the issue to its pollution, prevention and response panel, which will meet next January. Campaigners felt it was disappointing that the Sri Lankan proposal had not been properly discussed. The EIA’s Christina Dixon said: “The attitude of the committee members was extraordinary and showed a callous disregard for plastic pollution from ships as a threat to coastal communities, ecosystems and food security. This is simply unacceptable.”

The cleanup continues in Sri Lanka. Withanage says that some of the 470 turtles, 46 dolphins, and eight whales washed ashore had nurdles in them. While there is no proof the nurdles were responsible, he says: “I’ve seen some of the dolphins and they had plastic particles inside. There are more than 20,000 families that have had to stop fishing.

“The fishermen say when they dip [themselves]The pellets are absorbed into their ears by the water. It’s affected tourism, everything.”

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