Tiny but Deadly - Nurdles in our Oceans

These pellets of plastic are called nurdles. Credits: AFP [source:https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka-braces-for-major-oil-spill-and-pollution-after-spore-flagged-ship-catches]

When the Singaporean cargo ship X-Press Pearl caught fire in May 2021, it sank near Sri Lanka and leaked many toxic chemicals into the ocean. This sparked fears that marine wildlife may be poisoned by such chemicals. Nurdles, which are tiny pellets of plastic resin, were also spilled and washed up on beaches, decorating the coastline with an array of colorful spheres. This was an environmental catastrophe. Why are nurdles generating such uproar in the environmental community?

Nurdles serve as raw materials for manufacturing. As they are involved in the production of almost all plastic products, they are produced in large quantities. However, due to their small size, spillage is a common occurrence due to careless handling when recycling, transporting or packaging them into plastic products. An estimated 250,000 tonnes of nurdles enter the ocean annually simply from spillage alone! The nature of nurdles also allows them to absorb toxic chemicals readily. As a result, the coastline of Sri Lanka was severely polluted and specialists had to be sent to clean up the beach. People were strongly warned to not touch any litter on the beach due to their toxicity.

This diagram shows the ease of which nurdles can spill. Credit: Fidra [source: https://www.fidra.org.uk/nurdles/]

When nurdles enter the natural environment, they pose a significant threat to marine wildlife. Algae may colonize nurdles in a process known as biofouling, or nurdles may be wrapped in organic material floating in the ocean, giving nurdles the appearance and scent of the food that sea creatures normally would consume. However, the plastic nature of nurdles provides no nutritional value. To make matters worse, sea creatures are unable to digest these nurdles, and hence nurdles simply remain in the stomach of these animals. This gives the animal the impression that it is full and it stops eating. In many cases, these animals simply starve to death. Moreover, nurdles floating about in the ocean potentially may end up getting trapped in the gills of fishes, suffocating them.

Furthermore, when these animals get eaten by their predators, they end up passing all the plastic to the predator in a process known as bioamplification. As it turns out, humans exist at the top of the food chain. This results in us ingesting a significant amount of nurdles. As shown, nurdles exhibit adverse impacts to the marine ecosystem, which eventually cause great detriment to us as we feast on seafood.

The plastic we dump in the sea ends up coming back to bite us when we consume fish with plastic in their bodies. Credits: Natalie Reiner, WHOI creative [source: https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/junk-food/]

Due to the ubiquitous use of nurdles, they can now be found worldwide, from factories, to the coastline, and even out in the middle of the ocean. Negligent handling of nurdles results in their spillage. As products are transported worldwide, nurdles may accidentally fall out during packaging into drains, into the ocean during the loading and unloading of cargo. In some products that contain microbeads, such as facial wash, we may wash them down our drains during usage. The minute size of such microbeads prevents them from being caught by filters in our drains and they end up being swept from our drains into the oceans. To get a sense of how easily nurdles can spill, the UK plastic industry releases an average of 53 billion nurdles into the ocean a year. The same amount of nurdles can be used to produce 88 million plastic bottles! The nurdle problem is so widespread that they have been found in waters across all 7 continents, including the largely uninhabited Antarctica.

Clean-up is often not easy either. Nurdles often absorb toxic chemicals with them that make them dangerous to touch. They might get trapped within sand and sediments on coastlines that may make their removal extraordinarily tedious without causing large-scale coastal erosion.

It is even harder to remove nurdles in the ocean, as ocean currents and sun rays break them down into tinier bits of microplastic, and they end up across different oceans due to currents. Some plastic may even exist on a microscopic scale, where even locating them is a tall order. Yet, the environmental impact that nurdles have, regardless of their size, remains the same.

We must find a way to contain the problem of nurdles if we wish to keep our oceans clean and free of pollution! Credits: NurdlePatrol [source:https://nurdlepatrol.org/Forms/Solution/index.php]

However, all is not lost. We can look at some possible solutions on an individual, company and governmental scale.

Individuals can prevent nurdles from even escaping into the environment in the first place by avoiding products that use microbeads. By taking a look at the chemical ingredients used in many hygiene products such as facial wash and toothpaste, we realize that many microbeads are used in the manufacturing of such products. Avoid using facial products that contain polyethylene or polypropylene, which are commonly used to make microbeads. An easy way to check if a product uses microbeads is to input the name into Beatthemicrobead, a website that encourages the consumption of microbead-free products! By adopting a more sustainable and plastic-free lifestyle we can help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that enters the ocean and contributes to plastic pollution.

Companies that use nurdles in the production of their products have the onus to take responsibility for their usage. As explained earlier, it is very difficult to clean up nurdles in the environment due to their small size. Perhaps it would be easier to prevent them from entering the environment in the first place. Companies handling nurdles should be equipped with spill kits and trained to know the appropriate procedures for careful transportation and deal with spillages. For instance, they might wish to put filters in drains before they conduct the packaging of microbeads in the products to prevent a spillage that may cause nurdles to be washed into drains. Alternatives to microbeads that are more environmentally friendly, such as crushed walnut shells and jojoba seeds are also becoming increasingly popular in the cosmetic industry. Slowly, we may see microbeads being phased out in favor of more organic options!

Governments ought to also recognize the true impact nurdles pose to the environment and the deleterious effects they pose to the marine environment. Only then can they mete out the appropriate penalties for companies that carelessly handle nurdles and contribute to plastic pollution. In addition, they have the most power to raise awareness of the effects microplastics have on the environment.

Hence, we see that reducing plastic usage is not only an individual responsibility. Companies and governments have notably more resources and power to reduce the usage of plastic. The onus falls on them to carry out their part on a larger scale to enact greater change. However, this does not mean we get to abandon our individual responsibility.

Just like nurdles, small things have an impact. Together, we can move towards a more plastic-free lifestyle!

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