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What are nurdles, the little pieces of plastic that pollute the oceans?


The oceans are not only home to millions of aquatic species on the planet, they are also the only livelihood for countless people and a source of food for more.

It is for this reason that most environmental activists, scientists and national authorities are keen to keep ocean waters clean and safe. For every high-visibility oil spill – considered the most polluting element in the oceans – there is a myriad of insidious pollutants, like nurdles, that rapidly degrade the oceans. One of the main sources of contemporary pollution, oceanic or otherwise, is of course plastic.

What are nurdles?

Nurdles are tiny plastic granules, the size of lentils. These are “pre-production plastic pellets” that are the raw material for most plastic products today. Made from polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and other plastics, these granules are melted and poured into molds to make various plastic products.

They are to plastic products what sheet steel is to automobiles and other steel products.

They are the primary form in which plastic is shipped around the world after being made in processing plants and then on its way to manufacturing plants.

Depending on their density, nurdles can float on the surface of the water or sink below the surface. In either case, their shape and size lead fish and birds to mistake them for food.

Nurdles, if exposed to the environment, will slowly decompose into microplastics. Since the nurdles are made of plastic, they are not biodegradable. These nurdles and their microplastic runoff will be in the environment for decades if not centuries, polluting entire biospheres.

How harmful are nurdles?

Nurdles are the second largest source of micropollutants in the oceans by weight. Due to their ease of transport, the lack of accountability of large corporations and shipping companies, around 230,000 tonnes of nurdles end up in the world’s oceans each year.

Most of the 230,000 tonnes of plastic are then consumed by fish and birds. Animals often die from the consumption of these granules, because they obstruct their digestive tract or sometimes weigh them down to the point of no longer knowing how to swim. They can also present a choking hazard.

Microplastics created from decomposed nurdles can also be eaten by wildlife without killing them immediately. This allows deadly plastics to bioaccumulate in fish species, which is dangerous for other species higher in the food chain, including humans. Each species slowly begins to accumulate these nanoplastics in its body.

But it’s not just nanoplastics that are ingested. Since many toxins and chemicals that pollute water are hydrophobic in nature, they repel water and instead accumulate on the surface of nurdles and microplastics. What’s more, research has shown that nurdles can also carry deadly bacteria like E. coli and cholera if they come near contaminated water.

What is the world doing about it?

Despite the danger and environmental threat posed by nurdles, very little is done to prevent their release into the environment. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has not found the nurdles dangerous enough to be regulated by the organization’s Dangerous Goods Code for safe handling and storage.

The threat of plastic granules had been known since 1993, when it was highlighted by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a report, which also explained how the plastics industry could help reduce spills.

Nurdle Spills and Effects

The X-Press Pearl container ship caught fire and sank near the Sri Lankan coast earlier this year, releasing more than 1,680 tonnes of nurdles into the ocean. Last year the MV Trans Carrier lost 10 tonnes of pellets, which then washed up on the coasts of Denmark, Sweden and Norway and another spill occurred near South Africa.

In 2019, around 342 containers of nurdles were dumped in the North Sea. In 2018, 49 tonnes of plastic granules were spilled in an accident that affected 2,000 km of South African coast.

Accidents like this not only cause irreparable damage to local marine life, but can have disastrous consequences for the livelihoods of people in the area and their long-term food security.

“The sinking of the X-Press Pearl – and the dumping of chemicals and plastic pellets in the seas of Sri Lanka – have caused untold damage to marine life and destroyed local livelihoods,” Hemantha Withanage, director of the Center for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka told Gaurdian.

(Edited by : Shoma bhattacharjee)

First publication: STI


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