Nurdles: The Worst Toxic Waste You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Billions of these small plastic pellets are floating in the water, causing the same amount of harm as oil spills, yet they are not categorized as dangerous.

Sri Lanka was scared when the X-Press Pearl container ship caught fire and sunk in the Indian Water in May, fearing that the vessel’s 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil would leak into the ocean, producing an environmental calamity for the country’s beautiful coral reefs and fishing economy.

The UN classified the incident as Sri Lanka’s “worst marine disaster,” yet the heavy fuel oil had little impact. It wasn’t even the dangerous substances on board, such as nitric acid, caustic soda, and methanol. According to the UN, the leaking of 87 containers filled of lentil-sized plastic pellets: nurdles, caused the most “serious” harm.

Nurdles have been washing up in their billions over hundreds of miles of the country’s coastline since the accident, and are likely to reach landfall across Indian Ocean beaches ranging from Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia. They may be up to 2 metres deep in certain spots. They’ve been discovered in the corpses of deceased dolphins and fish mouths. A total of 1,680 tonnes of nurdles were dumped into the sea. According to the UN study, this is the greatest plastic leak in history.

Nurdles, or “pre-production plastic pellets,” are a little-known building element for all of our plastic goods. Polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, and other polymers can be used to make the small beads. When released into the environment from plastic plants or exported around the world as raw material to industries, the pellets will sink or float depending on their density and whether they are in freshwater or saltwater.

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

Seabirds, fish, and other creatures frequently mistake them for food. They disintegrate into nanoparticles in the environment, which pose more complicated risks. They are the second-largest source of micropollutants in the water, behind tyre dust, in terms of weight. Every year, an amazing 230,000 tonnes of nurdles end up in the seas.

Nurdles, like crude oil, are very persistent pollutants that will circulate in ocean currents and wash ashore for decades. They are also “toxic sponges,” drawing chemical poisons and other contaminants to their surfaces.

“The pellets themselves are a combination of chemicals – they are fossil fuels,” explains Tom Gammage, a campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). “However, they behave as poisonous sponges.” Many harmful compounds, which are already present in the water in Sri Lanka, are hydrophobic [repel water], and hence accumulate on the surface of microplastics.

“Pollutants on the surface of pellets can be a million times more concentrated than in the water,” he explains. “And we know from lab studies that when a fish consumes a pellet, some of those contaminants escape.”

Nurdles also operate as “rafts” for hazardous bacteria such as E coli and even cholera, carrying them from sewage outfalls and agricultural runoff to bathing waters and shellfish beds, according to one research. The phenomena of “plastic rafting” is becoming more common.

A bowl of nurdles collected on a beach

However, unlike kerosene, diesel, and gasoline, nurdles are not classified as hazardous under the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) dangerous goods rule for safe handling and storage. Despite the fact that the damage posed by plastic pellets to the environment has been known for three decades, as outlined in a 1993 study from the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency on how the plastics sector might prevent spillages.

Now, environmentalists are collaborating with the Sri Lankan government in an attempt to use the X-Press Pearl accident to spark reform.

When the International Maritime Organization’s maritime environment protection committee convened in London last week, Sri Lanka’s proposal for nurdles to be categorized as hazardous commodities drew widespread support, with over 50,000 individuals signing a petition. “There is nothing that can be done to prevent what occurred in Sri Lanka from happening again,” Gammage argues.

There were at least two nurdle leaks last year. A shattered container aboard the cargo ship MV Trans Carrier in the North Sea spilled 10 tonnes of pellets, which washed up on the coastlines of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In South Africa, a leak in August 2020 followed an accident in 2018, which impacted up to 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) of coastline. Only 23% of the 49 tonnes of spilt oil were recovered. In 2019, 342 plastic pellet canisters leaked into the North Sea.

The public is becoming more aware of the serious hazard presented by the small pellets. Last year, two environmental activists in the United States were prosecuted under Louisiana state law with “terrorizing” a plastics industry lobbyist after leaving a box of nurdles outside his house as part of a campaign to prevent Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics from constructing a facility in Louisiana.

A dead sea turtle washed ashore on the beach at Ratmalana, Sri Lanka.

The nurdles were from another Formosa factory in Texas, which had dumped massive volumes of pellets into Lavaca Bay on the Gulf of Mexico (Formosa agreed to pay $50 million to resolve a complaint alleging Clean Water Act violations). The campaigners’ accusations, which carried a 15-year jail sentence, were ultimately withdrawn.

Campaigners claim that such accidents are avoidable. “The sinking of the X-Press Pearl – and the release of chemical chemicals and plastic pellets into Sri Lankan waters – did enormous devastation to marine life and wrecked local livelihoods,” says Hemantha Withanage, head of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice. Fish consumption, which is the major protein source for 40% of Sri Lankans, has dropped dramatically, he claims. “It was a massive catastrophe, and sadly, there is no direction from the IMO.”

Nurdles would be subject to rigorous shipping requirements if they were classified as hazardous, as are explosives, flammable liquids, and other ecologically dangerous chemicals. “They must be housed below deck, in more sturdy packaging with clear labeling,” says Tanya Cox, marine plastic specialist at Flora & Fauna International. “They would also be subject to disaster-response protocols, which, if applied in the case of an emergency, have the potential to mitigate the worst environmental damage.”

However, the IMO secretariat has referred the matter to its pollution, prevention, and response committee, which will convene next year. Campaigners expressed disappointment that the Sri Lankan plan was not adequately debated. “The attitude of the committee members was remarkable and demonstrated a callous contempt for plastic pollution from ships as a danger to coastal populations, ecosystems, and food security,” said Christina Dixon of the EIA. This is absolutely intolerable.”

Meanwhile, the cleaning in Sri Lanka continues. According to Withanage, some of the 470 turtles, 46 dolphins, and eight whales washing ashore had nurdles in their bodies. While there is no confirmation that the nurdles were to blame, he claims that “I’ve seen some of the dolphins and they had plastic particles inside.” 20,000 households have been forced to cease fishing.

“The fisherman claim that the pellets enter into their ears when they dip [their] hands into the water.” Everything has been affected, even tourism.”

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