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Environmental Devastation: Nurdles off the Coast of Sri Lanka

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PC Photograph: Nurdles mixed with nature, Wired.com

What are nurdles? 

Most people have heard of microplastics. Many identify them as plastics at the end of their lifecycle – a result of broken-down plastic materials over time in our environment. But have you heard of nurdles? They might come to mind as a cute Pokémon or delicious appetizer, but they are far from it. 

Nurdles are plastic pellets – the foundation for all plastic products. In other words, they are microplastics that are at the beginning of plastic’s lifecycle. 

Created from crude oil and natural gas, a series of processes form a long plastic string then chop that string into small pieces – nurdles. Starting their journey as white tiny lentil-sized beads, nurdles continue their journey worldwide for consumer plastic production. Their small size allows for easy distribution and melting into almost any plastic product. Even recycled plastics return to nurdle form before starting their lifecycle again.

However, their small size equates to a big problem. 

Estimates tell us that billions of these nurdles end up in our oceans every year. 

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PC Photograph: Tortoise

The problem with nurdlesEven before reaching their end destination, many nurdles threaten our environment. Discharged from plastic plants or the shipping process, the nurdle’s small size allows them to evade many filtration systems and end up in our waterways. These highly persistent micropollutants contaminate not only the water they occupy – potentially releasing their toxic chemicals, but can act as a sponge for bacteria. Nurdles become even more dangerous through biofilms formed on their hard surface as they harbor pathogenic bacteria like E.Coli.

In recent history, an estimated 70-75 billion plastic pellets were released into the ocean by a cargo ship in what the UN deemed one of the largest plastic spills on record. 

In May of 2021, The cargo ship X-Press Pearl caught fire while carrying hazardous substances and large quantities of plastic pellets across the west coast of Sri Lanka. Efforts to mitigate the damage couldn’t prevent the cargo ship from eventually sinking in June. At first, the primary concern was the oil spill, and the 25 metric tonnes of nitric acid released into the ocean. But the narrative quickly changed as many realized the estimated 1,680 tonnes of nurdles was potentially a much bigger problem. 

These plastic pellets are a threat due to the micropollutants and contamination mentioned above, harming our ecosystem and the local economy.  

Ecosystem

Nurdles can have indirect effects on our ecosystem. Reports tell us that these small pellets reach up to two meters deep in some places on the Negombo beaches of Sri Lanka – meaning NBA champ James Harden, who is only 6.5 ft tall, would have to stand on his tiptoes to see over the top! These pellets can alter the temperature and permeability of the sand they wash up on, affecting egg incubation in the sand common for many sea turtles. 

White nurdles also mimic food for fish, birds, and turtles. Some of the nurdles were burnt in the fire aboard the X-Press Pearl, making them appear as seaweed and wood on the beach, only exacerbating the problem.

Once ingested, wildlife cannot pass these pellets – leading to poisoning and starvation. But it isn’t just larger wildlife. The sun’s rays continue to break down these already small plastics into even smaller microplastics eaten by plankton. The ingestion of nurdles makes its way up and accumulates in the food chain. For example, plankton ingests microplastics in their system, are eaten by fish, which dolphins then eat. Those microplastics are still going to be present in the belly of the dolphin and could lead to potential death. 

But what happens when humans are the ones eating the fish? 

PC Photograph: School of Fish, JSTOR Daily

Local Economy

In the case of Sri Lanka, fish is a staple for food and the economy. After the X-Press Pearl incident, authorities issued a fishing ban along a 50-mile stretch of the nation’s west coastline. This ban was to protect locals from ingesting potentially contaminated fish. But spills like this have immediate impacts on human health, communities, and livelihoods. 

In addition, spills like this can completely change the landscape of our natural world – affecting the quality of life and even tourism. 

Relief efforts are still underway to clean up the billions of nurdles on Sri Lanka’s coast. However, microplastics are non-biodegradable and extremely difficult to remove from our waters and beaches due to their size and color. The truth is – we need to stop contamination at its source, and you can help! 

What you can do

  1. There is power in numbers! As always, education is the first step. Learning more about how nurdles and plastics affect every aspect of our health and wellbeing on this planet is crucial. With this knowledge, you can figure out what reductions in plastic you can make in your own life. You can also share that knowledge with those you know and love and help to reduce the demand for single-use plastics. 
  2. The Sri Lankan government has created a proposal to present to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in April 2022. This proposal requests new shipping transportation and landing and loading regulations to reduce the risk of accidents like the X-Press Pearl. Currently, the IMO doesn’t classify nurdles as hazardous. Deeming nurdles as dangerous materials would make them subject to stricter shipping regulations like many other environmentally harmful substances.
  3. If you are financially able, donate to organizations that work to protect our oceans and the wildlife that live there – such as Pearl Protectors, who are working for a #nurdlefreelanka. 
  4. Nurdles are located across the world. If you find nurdles near your communities beach, lake, or another waterway – report it to your state’s regulatory agency. You can do this with the help of Nurdle Patrol’s online data collection system, which will help you document and send the information to your state agency or elected officials.

Show public support of this much-needed change by signing this petition at Change.Org

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