Explained: What are nurdles, the tiny plastic bits polluting oceans?
Oceans are not just home to millions of aquatic species in the planet, they are also the sole livelihood for countless individuals and are a source of food for even more.
It is for that reason that most environmental activists, scientists and national authorities are keen on keeping oceanic waters clean and safe. For every high-visibility oil spill -- seen as the most polluting element in oceans -- there are myriad insidious pollutants, like nurdles, that are fast degrading the oceans. One of the major sources of modern-day pollution, oceanic or otherwise, of course remains plastic.
What are nurdles?
Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets, the size of lentils. They are ‘pre-production plastic pellets’ that are the raw material for most of today’s plastic products. Made out of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and other plastics, these pellets are melted down and cast into the moulds to make various plastic products.
They are to plastic products what sheet steel is to automobiles and other steel products.
They are the main form in which plastic is shipped all over the world after being made in processing factories and then carried to manufacturing factories.
Depending on their density, nurdles can either float to the surface of the water or sink below the surface. In either case, their shape and size lead fishes and birds to often confuse them for food.
Nurdles, if left exposed to the environment, will slowly break down into microplastics. Since nurdles are 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, a lack of accountability on large companies and shipping corporations, around 230,000 tonnes of nurdles end up in the world’s oceans annually.
Most of the 230,000 tonnes of plastic is then consumed by fish and birds. The animals often die as a result of consuming these pellets, since they clog up their digestive tracts or sometimes weigh them down until they are unable to swim. They can also be choking hazards.
The microplastics that are created from broken-down nurdles can also be eaten by wildlife without killing them immediately. This allows the deadly plastics to bioaccumulate in fish species, which is dangerous for other species that are higher up the food chain, including humans. Every species slowly starts accumulating these nanoplastics in their bodies.
But it is not just nanoplastics that are being ingested. Since many of the toxins and chemicals that are polluting the water are hydrophobic in nature, they repel water, instead gathering on the surfaces of the nurdles and microplastics. Additionally, 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, there is very little being done to prevent their spillage into the environment. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has not deemed nurdles hazardous enough to be regulated by the organisation’s dangerous goods code for safe handling and storage.
The threat from the plastic pellets was known since 1993, when it was highlighted by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a report, that also talked about how the plastic industry could contribute to reducing spillage.
Nurdle spills and effects
The X-Press Pearl container ship caught fire and sunk near the Sri Lankan coast earlier in the year, releasing over 1,680 tonnes of nurdles into the ocean. Last year, MV Trans Carrier lost 10 tonnes of pellets, that 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 spilled into the North Sea. In 2018, 49 tonnes of plastic pellets were spilled in an accident that affected 2,000 km of South Africa’s coastline.
Accidents like this not only cause irreparable harm for the local marine life but can have disastrous consequences on the livelihood of the region’s people and their food safety over the long term.
“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,” Hemantha Withanage, Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka told the Gaurdian.