The nurdles are coming: Wave of 1 billion plastic pellets heading to WA’s south coast


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October 26, 2018 16:21:26

The word “nurdle” rarely enters everyday conversation, but these tiny lentil-sized pellets of plastic are at the centre of an impending environmental headache.

More than 2.25 billion of the miniature plastic spheres were spilt into the ocean from a ship off the South African city of Durban last year, and they have been creeping their way to Australian shores ever since.

The University of Western Australia has now started a project to determine how many nurdles have washed up, and to paint a clearer picture of who is responsible for the contamination.

Project leader Harriet Paterson said nurdles were the base ingredient for all plastics.

“A nurdle is, well it’s virgin plastic — so it’s the plastic that’s made in the petrochemical plant, and then it gets put in a container or various bags and things, and then they get shipped all over the world to make everything we use,” Dr Paterson said.

“So telephones, milk bottles, anything that’s plastic started life as these tiny little pellets called nurdles.

“Nurdles have been falling in the ocean, lost off ships, and just general spills since we’ve been making plastic — so since the late 1960s.

“So the ocean is full of them, and we get a whole repertoire of nurdles that wash up on our beaches all the time.”

Prepare for the great nurdle migration

After the spill in Durban, South African authorities were able to clean up about one-third of the pellets, which has left more than 1 billion nurdles still swirling in the world’s oceans.

Dr Paterson said many of those left would make their way to WA’s south coast throughout the coming year.

“I’m expecting if they haven’t arrived this year, they’re going to be arriving next year, all through next year,” she said.

“We tend to get fewer plastics over summer because I think it’s the easterly winds, they move plastics offshore.

“But next winter, when the south-westerlies start again, I think they’re going to be certainly coming ashore then.”

How do you track a nurdle?

The spillage has raised questions about who can be made responsible for the clean-up effort.

The Durban nurdles left a distinct chemical fingerprint, which makes them traceable.

“The thing that’s interesting with the Durban nurdles … [is] we know who manufactured them, who shipped them, we know where they were lost, so we can trace it back and start asking questions about, you know, who is responsible for cleaning up?” Dr Paterson said.

“This is now pollution on our beaches and we didn’t put them there, so who’s responsible?

“All the other nurdles that wash up on the beach, we don’t know where they came from, we don’t know how long they’ve been there, so we can’t actually say to anybody, ‘you did this, you need to do something about it’.”

Call for help to clear the nurdle hurdle

UWA has called for volunteers to help clean up affected beaches along WA’s south coast on what has been termed “Nurdle November”.

“I can’t do all the work so this is an invitation for people who are visiting whichever beach,” Dr Paterson said.

“I’ve got a very simple, scientific method for them to use, which is using a one square metre quadrat and just put it down on the strand line where the seaweed line is, and pick up all the plastic fragments that you can find.

“So I’m interested in seeing if we can find the Durban nurdles, because that leads us into the rest of the story.

“But I’d also like to know what are the characteristics of nurdles along our south coast, where do they accumulate?”

Topics:

pollution-disasters-and-safety,

water-pollution,

pollution,

environment,

albany-6330,

wa



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