Surdles are the raw material plastics industry.
Packed and shipped in the billions around the world, the size of lentils Plastic the pellets are then melted down and used as building blocks for a wide range of items used in our daily lives – from computers and cars to clothes and soda bottles.
Although the first reports of sightings of nurdls on beaches were made as late as 1970, they have since been found on every continent except Antarctica.
There are now calls for this type pollution should be taken much more seriously as their size and durability make them virtually impossible to remove once they are in the environment.
Plastic pellets cause environmental devastation
Nurdles get lost at every stage of the procedure. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, 230,000 tonnes end up in our oceans each year, and 23 billion nurdles end up in the environment every day in the EU alone.
They make their way through storm drains, into rivers and waterways, and eventually reach ours oceansthey are then distributed by wind and ocean currents to every corner of our planet, but due to their size, they are virtually impossible to clean up.
Nurdles are damaging the environment and marine life, but despite being one of the biggest sources of pollution in our environment oceansthey are often overlooked.
They usually only make headlines when significant container spills are lost at sea during transport.
Plastic pollution is a social and environmental tragedy
One such incident occurred in 2021 in pristine waters off the coast Sri Lanka.
Container ship X-Press pearl caught fire while carrying 350 tons of heavy fuel, spewing nearly 1,700 tons of nurdle and 9,700 tons of other plastics and toxic pollutants. With Nurdles washing up along hundreds of miles of coastline and congregating on beaches up to two meters high, it is the worst marine environmental disaster in the country’s history – and the largest single Nurdle pollution event the world has seen.
The resulting pollution has had overwhelming economic, social and environmental impacts. More than 20,000 fishermen are unable to fish in the area, losing their livelihoods, and marine habitats are now being destroyed.
“There are still large amounts of plastic discs and burnt ones microplastics hidden in water and sand, especially along the coastline between Colombo and Negombo,” says Hemantha Withanage, executive director of the Center for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka.
“They break down slowly, so they will be around for the next 500 to 1,000 years. In the coming years, they will not only affect marine life and human health, but also tourism and livelihoods.”
Plastic pollution is a threat to both marine life and humans
Often mistaken for fish eggs, nurdles are swallowed by sea birds and fish, causing malnutrition and starvation.
High concentrations of environmental pollutants they absorb, in addition to this chemicals used in their production, they also go to sea creatures. These harmful substances not only then accumulate in the food chain, but can also enter our bodies through the fish and seafood we eat, causing a variety of problems.
In 2020 for the first time microplastics found in human organs and babies. In 2022, they were even detected in human blood.
Spills can affect ecosystems and even change properties such as the temperature and permeability of beach sand, which in turn affects animals such as endangered sea turtles that incubate their eggs in this environment.
What threats does plastic pollution pose to the climate?
we know fossil fuel and the plastics industry are deeply interconnected.
Nurdles, along with other plastics, are made from chemicals derived from fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases at every stage of their life cycle, including the afterlife.
According to a 2019 study by the Center for International Environmental Law, by 2030, annual global plastic-related emissions could reach the equivalent of nearly 300 coal– fired power plants.
Have attempts been made to reduce plastic leakage?
Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) is an international initiative of the plastics industry aimed at reducing nurdle losses in the environment. Participating companies receive guidelines to help prevent the loss of pellets from their plants. While the OCS provides a good starting point, registration is voluntary and no checks are carried out to ensure that promises are kept.
This diagram also does not represent the whole plastics globally, and in Europe only a small percentage of the estimated 55,000 companies involved in the supply chain have so far registered.
Fidra is an environmental charity dedicated to reducing plastic waste and chemical pollution, and through the “Great Global Hunt for Nurdles” aims to better understand Nurdle density and distribution. In 2021, nurdles were found in 91 percent of the countries surveyed.
“More than 900 people participated in nurdle hunts on beaches and waterways around the world [in 2021]says Heather McFarlane, project manager at Fidra.
“Searching for nurdles not only gives us data on pollution, it also shows that people care about this ongoing plastic problem and want to see more action to solve it, from industry and governments.”
Further action is needed to reduce plastic pollution
Despite our understanding of Nurdle spills as a chronic environmental threat, they are still lost in their billions.
More than 30 years after Operation Clean Sweep, there are no international regulations for plastics companies to ensure good operating practices, although there is now increasing recognition of the urgent need to prevent nurdles from escaping into the landscape.
Fidra calls for a supply chain approach. This is where all plastic pellet companies – from petrochemical producers producing billions of pellets per hour, to those that ship pellets around the world, to micro-enterprises that buy bags of pellets to make products – implement best practices.
All these companies need a way to prove they are handling nurdles responsibly so that every part of the supply chain, including consumers, knows that plastic does not contribute to pollution.
Despite marine-sourced plastics accounting for about 20 percent of plastic pollution, and marine nurdle spills being recorded off the coast of Hong Kong, South Africa and in the North Sea over the last decade, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body that regulates global shipping, has repeatedly delayed discussion of these plastic pellets.
So after a devastating nurdle spill in the country, the Sri Lankan government requested that the IMO classify nurdles as hazardous substances to help avoid future marine leaks.
These calls are supported by the Sri Lanka Center for Environmental Justice, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) NGO and other members of the Clean Shipping Coalition.
“Classifying nurdles as hazardous substances would provide preventive measures such as separate storage, clear labeling, best practices, and emergency response protocols,” explains Tom Gammage, Ocean Campaigner at EIA.
“Currently, there are no legal obligations for substances or goods transported by sea if they are not listed in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG), and for this to happen they must be classified as dangerous.
“We already know that microplastics such as nurdles bioaccumulate, persist in the environment for hundreds of years and can cause toxicity. There is more than enough evidence to support the IMDG list for these plastics,” he says.
But rich nations prefer not to get involved in plastic waste…
At the 2021 IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting in London, the EIA presented a petition calling for the nurdle to be classified as hazardous – but there was no time to discuss the nurdle issues.
Withanage was disappointed with this result. “We are very dissatisfied with the attitude of the IMO,” he said at the time.
“The Sri Lankan government had only two minutes to express its concerns and demands and challenge the IMO on future plans Shipping catastrophes and the proposal to declare the nurdle as hazardous substances before it is suddenly shut down.
“There were six people, including me, who were supposed to speak, but we didn’t because we weren’t allotted time. It makes me feel while small nation such as Sri Lanka suffers from a great catastrophe, rich industry nations I prefer not to get involved.”
In 2023, a campaign is underway to classify nurses as dangerous.