Nurdles are tiny plastic granules in the ocean, and there are billions of them

I read an article in The Guardian this week, which described something as toxic as an oil spill – the nurdles – and I was dismayed and motivated to raise more awareness of these issues. Nurdles are tiny plastic balls that float in the ocean. There are billions of them. Oddly, however, they are not classified as dangerous.

The article began with the X-Pres Pearl container ship disaster that occurred in Sri Lanka in May. The ship caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean. Authorities were concerned about 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil being spilled from the ship into the ocean, and the United Nations has classified it as the worst maritime disaster in history.

However, the biggest impact was not caused by heavy fuel oil. It wasn’t even caused by the dangerous chemicals on board, which The Guardian noted included nitric acid, caustic soda and methanol. The most significant damage according to the UN, came from the spill of nurdles. There were 87 containers full of these lens-sized plastic pellets, which are now wreaking havoc in our oceans and shores.

Ground views noted that nurdles have been found along a coastal strip of about 300 km along the western and southwestern Indian Ocean, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia. In some areas, they are up to two meters deep. They have already been found in the bodies of dead dolphins and in the mouths of fish. In total, around 1,680 tonnes of nurdles were dumped into the ocean, which, according to the UN, makes it the largest plastic spill in history.

Tom Gammage, from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said The Guardian that these pellets were a mixture of chemicals and that they are essentially fossil fuels. Unfortunately, a big problem is that these nurdles also attract other pollutants to an extreme degree.

“But they act like toxic sponges. Many toxic chemicals – which in Sri Lanka’s case are already in the water – are hydrophobic [repel water], they therefore gather on the surface of microplastics.

“Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of pellets than in water.

“And we know from laboratory studies that when a fish eats a pellet, some of these pollutants come off.”

Nurdles should be classified as dangerous

The article noted that unlike kerosene, diesel and gasoline, nurdles are not classified as dangerous under the International Maritime Organization’s Dangerous Goods Code for safe handling and storage. And the worst part is that this organization is well aware of the threat that nurdles pose to the environment. There is a 1993 report from the United States Environmental Protection Agency that details this in its directions for use on reducing spills from the plastics industry.

It’s not the only nurdle spill, either. The Guardian pointed out that two happened last year. One in the North Sea resulted in a spill of 100 tonnes of pellets. They ran aground on the coasts of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The other was off South Africa. This spill affected up to 1,250 miles of coastline and only 23% of the 49 tonnes spilled were recovered. Also in 2019, 342 other containers of nurdles were dumped in the North Sea.

As the cleanup continues in Sri Lanka, several of the turtles, dolphins and whales that washed up on the shore had nurdles in their bodies. The article interviewed Hemantha Withanage, director of the Center 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 although there is no evidence that the nurdles were responsible for their deaths. Yet thousands of families dependent 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 it.

Ahead of here

It is unbelievably horrible. The article contained pictures of these nurdles in a bowl and in the mouth of a fish, and in the last photo I counted at least 30 in the mouth of that fish. Marine life is literally choking on these things. And we wonder how artificial microplastics first found their way into a human placenta last year.

I think this is where companies like The Ocean Cleanup will help make a positive impact. I recently wrote about The Ocean Cleanup, which focuses on cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The association announced the end of its System 002 test campaign, designed to concentrate plastic and allow its collection and disposal in large quantities.

The garbage patch is a mix of large and small plastics, including microscopic particles also known as microplastics. Maybe The Ocean Cleanup can be of help in helping clean up nurdle spills. If his systems can easily collect large and small pieces of plastic so small that they are at the level of microplastics, then he should have no problem collecting nurdles.

One idea is to design a specific system that can be deployed to the site of a spill in time. It could collect nurdles and prevent pollution and death of marine life.

Photo by @madicattt / Sustainable Coastline (CC BY-NC)

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