Plastic pellet pollution

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Nurdles on a beach in southwest France, 2011

Plastic pellet pollution is a type of marine debris originating from plastic particles utilized in manufacturing large-scale plastics. These pre-production plastic pellets, commonly referred to as nurdles, 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.[1] These plastics are released into the open environment, creating pollution in the oceans and on beaches.[2]

Description[edit]

A handful of nurdles, spilled from a train in Pineville, Louisiana, in the United States

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.[3] There are two types of microplastics: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics.[4] Primary microplastics are released directly into the environment, like microbeads and preproduction plastic pellets.[4] Secondary microplastics are created through photodegradation and weathering of larger pieces of plastic, like water bottles and fishing nets.[4]  Primary microplastics make up between 15% to 31% of marine microplastics.[4]

Marine pollution is growing due to large-scale plastic producing corporations.[4]  In general, the production of plastic is continuing to increase an average of about 8% each year. Because there is more plastic produced, more litter pollution will end up in waterways.[5] Nurdles are the second largest source of microplastics in the ocean.[6] Approximately 27 million tonnes (60 billion pounds) of nurdles are manufactured annually in the United States.[7] 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.[8]

A study on a polyethylene production facility in Sweden found that between 3 and 36 million of plastic pellets enter the environment from production sites every year.[9] These nurdles spill during transportation and production and due to inadequate precautions and regulations, millions of pellets of plastic end up in nearby waterways and eventually the ocean.[10]

Environmental impact[edit]

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.[11] 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.[12][13]

Waterborne nurdles may either be a raw material of plastic production, or from larger chunks of plastics.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

Plastic microbeads used in cosmetic exfoliating products are also found in water.

Incidents[edit]

2012[edit]

San Francisco Bay Coastal Cleanup from multiple nurdle spills.[17]

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. Though nurdles are not toxic or hazardous on their own according to Sinopec,[18] the spill disrupted marine life and is being credited with killing stocks of fish on fish farms.[19]

2017[edit]

A nurdle spill of about two billion nurdles (49 tons) from a shipping container in Durban Harbor required extended cleanup efforts.[20] These nurdles have also been spotted washing up on the shore in Western Australia.[21]

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.[22] The nurdle hunts occurring earlier in 2017 determined that 73% of UK beaches had nurdle pollution.[23]

2018[edit]

A semi-truck crash led to the release of bright blue colored nurdles into Pocono Creek and the waterways of the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.[24]

2020[edit]

During a thunderstorm on August 20, a 40-foot (12 m) shipping container with 25 tons of nurdles arriving from Asia 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.[25]

2021[edit]

On 2 June 2021 the cargo ship X-Press Pearl sank off the coast of Sri Lanka, spilling chemicals and microplastic nurdles and causing the worst environmental disaster in the country's history.[26]

Current progress and solutions[edit]

Of the 300 million tons of plastic material produced each year, over 14 million tons end up in the ocean, and plastic production in continuing to increase.[27] Marine litter as a whole is imposing environmental threats to marine ecosystems and policy solutions are crucial to better the ocean.[28]

  • 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.[29] 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.[30][31] However, the program does not require companies to keep or report any data on pellet spills.[32]
  • In 2007 California passed AB 258, which established measures that preproduction plastic producing manufacturers had to follow during the production and transport of plastic pellets.[33] This preventative measure includes inspections by the Regional and State Water Board staff and enforcement of orderly production and transportation of preproduction plastic to minimize the amount of plastic resin pellets spills.[34]
  • In 2008, California passed a "nurdle law", which "specifically names pre-production plastic pellets (nurdles) as a pollutant".[35]
  • In 2015, the Microbead-Free Waters Act passed, which prohibits the manufacturing and distribution of primary plastic microbeads for cosmetic products.[36] This ban will reduce the amount of plastic pellets that end up in oceans by preventing microbead particles from being used in cosmetic care products.[36]

Actions for creating awareness[edit]

On April 11, 2013, in order to create awareness, artist Maria Cristina Finucci founded The Garbage Patch State at UNESCO[37] in 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.[38]

The Great Nurdle Hunt is a citizen science project that maps out plastic pellet pollution globally.[39] The data collected is used to actively engage with industry and policy-makers to develop solutions to prevent further pellet pollution.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]