Plastic resin pellet pollution
Plastic resin pellet pollution is a type of marine debris originating from plastic particles utilized in manufacturing large-scale plastics. These pre-production plastic pellets are created separately from the user plastics they are melted down to form, and pellet loss is incurred during both the manufacturing and transport stages. Commonly referred to as nurdles, these plastics are released into the open environment, creating pollution in the oceans and on beaches.
Plastic resin pellets are classified as primary source microplastics, meaning that they were intentionally produced at the size ranging from 1–5 mm in diameter. Approximately 27 million tonnes (60 billion pounds) of nurdles are manufactured annually in the United States. One pound of pelletized HDPE contains approximately 25,000 nurdles (approximately 20 mg per nurdle). They are typically under 5 mm (0.20 in) in diameter.
Nurdles are a major contributor to marine debris. During a three-month study of Orange County beaches researchers found them to be the most common beach contaminant. Nurdles on bathing beaches in East Lothian, Scotland have been shown to be covered with E. coli and Vibrio biofilms, according to a 2019 study.
Waterborne nurdles may either be a raw material of plastic production, or from larger chunks of plastics. A major concentration of plastic may be the Great Pacific garbage patch, a growing collection of marine debris known for its high concentrations of plastic litter.
Nurdles that escape from the plastic production process into waterways or oceans have become a significant source of ocean and beach plastic pollution. Plastic pellet pollution that has been monitored in studies is mainly found in the sediments and beach areas and is usually polyethylene or polypropylene, the two main plastic polymers found in microplastic pollution.
Nurdles have frequently been found in the digestive tracts of various marine creatures, causing physiological damage by leaching plasticizers such as phthalates. Nurdles can carry two types of micropollutants in the marine environment: native plastic additives and hydrophobic pollutants absorbed from seawater. For example, concentrations of PCBs and DDE on nurdles collected from Japanese coastal waters were found to be up to 1 million times higher than the levels detected in surrounding seawater.
In Hong Kong, after being blown by Typhoon Vicente on 24 July 2012, some containers belonging to Chinese oil giant Sinopec which were carrying over 150 tonnes of plastic pellets were blown into the sea, washing up on southern Hong Kong coasts, such as Shek O, Cheung Chau, Ma Wan and Lamma Island. The spill disrupted marine life and is being credited with killing stocks of fish on fish farms.
A nurdle spill of about two billion nurdles (49 tons) from a shipping container in Durban Harbor required extended cleanup efforts. These nurdles have also been spotted washing up on the shore in Western Australia.
The Great Nurdle Hunt, which occurred June 2–5, 2017, across the United Kingdom drew attention to the issue of plastic pellet pollution. A program started by Fidra, a Scottish environmental charity, sourced information on nurdles from citizens across the region using shared photos to better understand the makeup of pollution across beaches in the UK. The nurdle hunts occurring earlier in 2017 determined that 73% of UK beaches had nurdle pollution.
During a thunderstorm on August 20th, a 40-foot (12 m) shipping container with 25 tons of nurdles fell off the CMA CGM Bianca ship into the Mississippi River in New Orleans. No official clean up took place. Hazardous material spills are in coast guard jurisdiction, but nurdles are not classified as hazardous material. The Department of Environmental Quality does not find it clear as to who is responsible for cleaning up the spill.
Current progress and solutions
The plastic industry has responded to the increased interest and concern for plastic pellet loss and pollution sources. Operation Clean Sweep was created by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association in 2001 and joined by the American Chemistry Council with the goal of zero pellet loss for plastic manufacturers. This voluntary stewardship program provides its members with a manual which guides them through ways in which they can reduce pellet loss within their own facilities and provides the necessary training. However, the program does not require companies to keep or report any data on pellet spills.
In 2008, California passed a "nurdle law", which "specifically names pre-production plastic pellets (nurdles) as a pollutant".
Actions for creating awareness
On April 11, 2013 in order to create awareness, artist Maria Cristina Finucci founded The Garbage Patch State at UNESCO –Paris in front of Director General Irina Bokova. It is the first of a series of events under the patronage of UNESCO and of Italian Ministry of the Environment.
The Great Nurdle Hunt is a citizen science project that maps out plastic pellet pollution globally. The data collected is used to actively engage with industry and policy-makers to develop solutions to prevent further pellet pollution.
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