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Millions of tiny plastic nurdles washed onto KwaZulu-Natal beaches after they spilled out of containers that fell of a ship in Durban Port.

Crisis on SA shores as plastic pellets continue to threaten environment after spill

The Durban shoreline is facing a critical challenge as billions of tiny plastic pellets continue to wash up onto the shore. We take a look at the current “nurdle” crisis.

ethekwini beaches

Millions of tiny plastic nurdles washed onto KwaZulu-Natal beaches after they spilled out of containers that fell of a ship in Durban Port.

“Nurdles” are the tiny plastic pellets used for the “pre-production” of microplastic are seen as the building blocks of most plastic products. The problem? Billions are now floating along the Durban coastline after a container spill out at sea.

“Plastic particle water pollution (Nurdles) 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.” – Wikipedia

The pellets have been washing up on 1,200 km of coastline forcing volunteers and workers to take daily action. The story has gained attention from international media as the potential environmental consequences could be devastating.

Remember that freak storm in Durban back in October last year? Well, it was that not-so-mini-hurricane that sent two vessels colliding with the port’s containers. As a result, 49 tonnes of nurdles went over the side of the ship.

It took just five days for residents to notice the pellets begin to wash up on shore in their millions. According to a report from SkyNews, the synthetic legacy “could last forever”.

“We all work under standard operating procedures and we know what do when there is oil or explosives (but) nobody could tell what to do with nurdles. We didn’t even know these things behave like this.” – Sobantu Tilayi, COO of SA Maritime Safety Authority told Sky News

Aside from volunteers, there are also hundreds of clean-up crews faced with the daily task of scraping them off the beach. One crew member even reckons that it could three years or more of constant cleaning before they’ve seen the last of them.

As February comes to an end, only 11 of the 49 tonnes have been recovered.

While the recent media coverage of “nurdles” is gaining traction after the Durban spill, a study by the University of Cape Town shows that the plastic problem is more than a simple spill.

Study leader, Professor Peter Ryan told TheSouthAfrican that the plastic pieces are actually at their least dangerous when they are on the beach. It’s what happens next that’s the real problem.

“Storms wash lots of this plastic out to sea. With climate change and associated sea level rise, lots of ‘legacy’ plastics that have been buried in beaches for years are likely to get washed out.”

“Once at sea, these tiny bits of plastic are eaten by a host of marine organisms with adverse impacts on them and on their predators – which ultimately includes humans as major consumers of seafood.”

So that’s the full circle for a Nurdle: spilt out at sea, washed ashore and frantically cleaned up before causing even more chaos back in the water. Who would have thought it, something so small could do so much damage and require so much action.