Nurdles pollute beaches, oceans & waterways (pre- plastic product activities)


EXCERPT: Last September, Jace Tunnell discovered a layer of tiny, round plastic pellets covering a beach on Padre Island off the southern coast of Texas. There were “millions of them,” he recalled, “and it went on for miles.” Tunnell, a marine biologist, knew exactly what the pellets were, but says he had never actually seen them before.

They’re called nurdles, and they’re the preproduction building blocks for nearly all plastic goods, from soft-drink bottles to oil pipelines. But as essential as they are for consumer products, nurdles that become lost during transit or manufacturing are also an environmental hazard. In the ocean and along coastal waterways, they absorb toxic chemicals and are often mistaken for food by animals. They also wash up by the millions on beaches, leaving coastal communities to deal with the ramifications.

Researchers say nurdles—which weigh a fraction of an ounce (approximately 20 milligrams each)—are found virtually everywhere. It is estimated that more than 250,000 tons enter the ocean annually. In February, Fidra, an environmental group based in Scotland, reported nurdle pollution in 28 of the 32 countries they surveyed, from Ecuador to South Africa. “Pellets have been around and have been lost since plastic started to be produced,” says Madeleine Berg, a project manager for Fidra, which is working to reduce plastic waste and chemical pollution. And as plastic production continues to rise, researchers worry that the threat to beaches and coastal regions is growing worse.

[...] According to a study published in February by Tunnell’s colleague Kathleen Swanson and other researchers, accumulation rates of plastic pollution are 10 times higher in Texas than other Gulf Coast states sampled over a year-and-a-half period. [...] In a place like Padre Island, an important ecosystem for nearly 200 species of fish and almost 400 species of birds, including some endangered, nurdle pollution is a serious concern. Research shows that nurdles can absorb chemicals like DDT, a now widely banned insecticide; PCBs, a group of manmade industrial chemicals; and mercury. And if marine animals like turtles ingest the plastic instead of the food they need, it can clog their digestive systems and eventually cause them to starve to death.

[...] Often ... there are few repercussions for polluters, given the challenges of tracing the nurdles back to their origin and tracking down offenders. There is also no database of manufacturers who make plastic pellets and where they ship. Even so, researchers can generally tell if nurdles are from a new spill. [...] Evidence can be tricky to gather, however, depending on where the pollution takes place. Within days of the arrival of white-colored nurdles in September on Mustang and Padre Island beaches, which are drivable and also regularly graded, most had been covered up or pushed up against the dunes. And even when nurdles can be traced to a single spill, manufacturer, or location, there is seemingly little to no legal framework for regulating plastic-pellet production.

[...] In addition, it is often unclear who is responsible when pollution crosses international borders. In 2017, for example, a storm caused containers filled with roughly 54 tons of nurdles to fall from a ship in Durban, South Africa. By the time the South African authorities began their cleanup attempts, the nurdles had already begun making their way to Australia, and were estimated to arrive about 450 days after the spill, according to Harriet Paterson, a professor at the University of Western Australia who is studying plastics in the aquatic environment.

[...] Meanwhile, experts say the demand for plastic production, now estimated at 335 million tons annually, is growing, which means the demand for nurdles is also on the rise. ... Tunnell is bracing for what that could mean locally. A dozen new United States facilities or expansions—nearly all of them in Texas—are expected within the next three years... (MORE - details)

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