Nurdles are the raw material for the plastics sector.
These pellets, which are about the size of a lentil, are packed and shipped in their billions around the world. Once they have melted down, they can be used to make a variety of products that we use every day – from computers and cars to clothes and drink containers.
Although they were not first seen on beaches until 1970, they have been found on every continent apart from Antarctica.
This type of pollution is now being called for to be treated more seriously as they are so large and persistent that it is almost impossible to remove once they have entered the environment.
Causing environmental devastation
Every stage of handling can result in the loss of nasties. Plastic Soup Foundation says that every year, 230,000 tonnes enter our oceans23 billion nurdles per day are found in the environment within the EU. They travel down storm drains, into rivers, and eventually reach our oceans. Due to their size, it is almost impossible to clean them up.
Although they are a major source of pollution in the oceans, the effects of nidles on the environment and marine life can be devastating. However, they are often overlooked.
They are most often only reported when containers are damaged during transport.
A social and environmental disaster
One such incident occurred earlier in the year, in pristine waters off Sri Lanka’s coast.
The cargo ship X-Press Pearl caught on fireThe 350 tonnes of heavy fuel carried by the vessel emitted nearly 1,700 tonnes worth of nurdles and 9,700 tonnes other plastics and toxic pollutant. It is the result of nurdles washing up on hundreds of miles of coastline and accumulating on beaches as high as two metres high. worst marine environmental disaster in the country’s history – and the single largest nurdle pollution event the world has seen.
The resulting pollution has had a huge economic, social, as well as environmental impact. Over 20,000 fishermen are now unable to fish in the area. They have lost their livelihoods and marine habitats have been destroyed.
“There are still large amounts of plastic nurdles, and Hidden in the water are microplastics made of burnt materials and sand, especially along the coastline between Colombo and Negombo,” says Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental JusticeSri Lanka.
“These degrade slowly, so will be around for the next 500 to 1000 years. They will not just affect marine life and human health, but also tourism and livelihoods, for years to come.”
Both marine life and human health are at risk
Nurdles can be mistaken for fish eggs and are often ingested and ingested in large quantities by seabirds and fish. This causes malnutrition and starvation.
The high concentrations environmental pollutantsThey absorb chemicals used in their production and also make their way into the bodies of marine animals. These harmful substances are not only harmful but also endanger marine life. Build up in the food chainThey can also enter our bodies through the fish and seafood that we eat, causing a variety problems.
Last year, it was the first time that this had been done. In human organs, microplastics were discovered– and babiesThey are believed to be filled with them.
Spillage can cause ecosystems to change and even alter their characteristics like temperature and permeability. This can affect endangered sea turtles, which incubate eggs in this habitat, as well as other animals.
What about climate-related threats?
We know that plastic and fossil fuel are intimately connected.
Like other plastics, nurkles are made of chemicals derived from fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases at every stage of their lives, including the afterlife.
According to A 2019 studyAccording to the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIELA), plastic emissions could surpass 300 coal-fired power stations by 2030.
Have there been any efforts to reduce spills?
Operation Clean SweepThe Plastics Industry has launched the International Initiative to Reduce the Loss of Nurdles to the Environment (OCS). This scheme provides guidelines to companies that help prevent pellet loss at their sites. OCS is a good starting point. However signing up for the scheme is voluntary. There are no checks to make sure promises are kept.
This scheme doesn’t represent the entire plastics supply chains around the globe. In Europe, only a small portion of the 55,000 companies involved in the supply chains have yet signed up.
FidraAn environmental charity that works to reduce chemical pollution and plastic waste. ‘Great Global Nurdle Hunt’The purpose of this project is to better understand nurdle distributions and density. Nurdles were discovered in 91 percent of the participating countries.
“Over 900 people took part in nurdle hunts on beaches and waterways around the world this year,” says Heather McFarlane, Project Manager at Fidra.
“Looking for nurdles not only gives us data on pollution, it also shows people care about this ongoing plastic problem and want to see more action to address it, from industry and governments.”
We need to take more action
Despite our understanding that nurdle spills are a serious environmental hazard, they are still being lost in their billions.
30 years after Operation Clean Sweep ended, there are still no legal obligations for the plastics industry to maintain good operational practices. However, there is growing recognition of the urgent need for proper management to stop nurdles from escaping into the landscape.
Fidra is calling to implement a supply-chain approach. This is where all companies that handle plastic pellets – from the petrochemical producers who produce billions of pellets per hour and those who transport pellets around the globe to microbusinesses that buy bags of pellets to make their products – should implement best practices.
All these companies need a way to prove they are handling nurdles responsibly so every part of the supply chain, including consumers, will know the plastic isn’t contributing to pollution.
Plastics from sea-based sources account to around 5% of all plastics Plastic pollution is 20%Recorded marine nurdle spills Hong Kong, South AfricaIn the North SeaThe International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN agency that regulates global shipping, has repeatedly delayed discussions on the issue of plastic pellets over the past decade.
So following the country’s devastating nurdle spill, the government of Sri Lanka has demanded the IMO classify nurdles as hazardous substances,to help avoid future marine spillages.
“Classifying nurdles as hazardous substances would ensure preventative measures such as separate stowage, clear labelling, best practice handling and emergency response protocols,” explains Tom Gammage, Ocean Campaigner ae EIA.
“There are currently no legal obligations for a substance or good that is transported at sea if it is not listed in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code, and for this to happen they must be classified as hazardous.
“We already know microplastics such as nurdles bioaccumulate, persist for hundreds of years in the environment, and can cause toxicity. There is more than enough evidence to support an IMDG listing for these plastics,” he says.
But rich nations prefer not to get involved…
Last week, at the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee meeting in London, EIA presented a now 90,000-strong signature PetitionWhile he called for nurdles be classified as dangerous, there was disbelief. No time was left to discuss the issues surrounding nurdles.
Withanage is disappointed by this result. “We are very unhappy about the IMO’s attitude,” he says.
“The government of Sri Lanka was only given two minutes to voice their concerns and demands, and question the IMO on its plans to address future shipping disasters and the proposal to declare nurdles as hazardous substances, before being abruptly cut off.
“There were six people, including myself, listed to speak, but we didn’t, as no time was allocated to us. This makes me feel that while a small nation such as Sri Lanka is suffering from a big disaster, rich industrial nations prefer not to get involved,” he concludes.
Additional discussions should take place in March and April next year. The campaign to classify nurdles hazardous will continue until then.