Originally published on The Guardian
When the X-Press Pearl container ship caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean in May, Sri Lanka was terrified that the vessel’s 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil would spill into the ocean, causing an environmental disaster for the country’s pristine coral reefs and fishing industry.
Classified by the UN as Sri Lanka’s “worst maritime disaster”, the biggest impact was not caused by the heavy fuel oil. Nor was it the hazardous chemicals on board, which included nitric acid, caustic soda and methanol. The most “significant” harm, according to the UN, came from the spillage of 87 containers full of lentil-sized plastic pellets: nurdles.
Since the disaster, nurdles have been washing up in their billions along hundreds of miles of the country’s coastline, and are expected to make landfall across Indian Ocean coastlines from Indonesia and Malaysia to Somalia. In some places they are up to 2 metres deep. They have been found in the bodies of dead dolphins and the mouths of fish. About 1,680 tonnes of nurdles were released into the ocean. It is the largest plastic spill in history, according to the UN report.
Nurdles, the colloquial term for “pre-production plastic pellets”, are the little-known building block for all our plastic products. The tiny beads can be made of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and other plastics. Released into the environment from plastic plants or when shipped around the world as raw material to factories, they will sink or float, depending on the density of the pellets and if they are in freshwater or saltwater.
They are often mistaken for food by seabirds, fish and other wildlife. In the environment, they fragment into nanoparticles whose hazards are more complex. They are the second-largest source of micropollutants in the ocean, by weight, after tyre dust. An astounding 230,000 tonnes of nurdles end up in oceans every year.
Like crude oil, nurdles are highly persistent pollutants, and will continue to circulate in ocean currents and wash ashore for decades. They are also “toxic sponges”, which attract chemical toxins and other pollutants on to their surfaces.