24 November, 2017 24 November, 2017

Nurdles Presenting Environmental Hurdles

Much like the face of a teenager, beaches across the east coast of South Africa have become littered with white heads. Here I’m not refereeing to the impending attack of the Gauteng holiday maker, but rather the newest plastic plight to hit our shores, meet the nurdle! 

They may be small, look about as threatening as a newborn and sound like cartoon characters but don’t be fooled as these buggers are out for total ocean domination. They represent one of the world’s most pervasive pollutants found in waterbodies the world over. This minute factory made pellet form the raw material for every single plastic product we use.  Each year billions of nurdles are produced, melted and turned into an assortment of toys, slops, straws, buttons and countless other plastic products. Shit, these things are everywhere! They say dynamite comes in small packages, well the nurdle is no exception to the rule. Their most dangerous attribute stems from their unrivalled endurance allowing them to hang about for generations as their artificial make up makes them unable to biodegrade. So as long as these little dudes don’t make their way into the environment we have nothing to worry about.

In conjunction with being a massive eye sore and immortal like Ozzy Osbourne, nurdles are doubly deadly due to their structural makeup. The rough pitted surface of these micro plastics allow water born chemicals to stick to them making them a toxic tornado to anything that mistakes them for fish eggs be it seabirds, fish, filter feeders, whales or crustaceans. Now even though nurdles can be ingested they can never be digested adding yet another weapon to their arsenal of environmental carnage. Beyond the toxins that are absorbed into the unsuspecting marine victim these plastics will hang around indefinitely, bringing about eventual starvation as they trick their host into thinking they are full, what a grim way to go. These awful truths were echoed by the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) along with numerous other organisations.



Nurdles are produced in several countries and then transported via shipping companies across the globe, here much like those skelms on the beach looking to get away with your unattended belongings, nurdles are crafty and infiltrate our natural world via multiple means. This was the case following the mega storm that rocked the KZN coast on October 10th where in a couple of shipping containers housing these hazardous pollutant junkies found their way into the waves.  Once in the water, the curse of the nurdle spreads far and wide as they drift aimlessly in the current. Originating in Durban harbour nurdles from the containers in question have been found in Mozambique and even as far as East London.

This is how the environment feels when it gets bombarded by nurdles. Like it tripped over a foam ball hurdle. Like Deen Hill right here. Image: Ian Thurtell


This enormous ecological disaster can be compared to an oil spill with regard to its pending impact on the marine environment. Moving further down the line these pellets once being integrated into the food web have the potential to harm all of us who smaak a prawn or two via the toxins they pass on. In the first few weeks following the spill nobody was able to directly attribute the disaster to a single source, and even more remarkable was the fact that nobody was talking about it, claiming responsibility or perhaps worst of all preventing these tiny plastics from escaping the harbour and setting sail to countless destinations. The only measures put in place were via a call to arms, where SAAMBR was pleading for anybody with time on their hands to get to the beach and help pick up as many of these devils as possible before the tide allowed for these pellets to set sail once more. In these first few weeks nobody from government or any toxic spill management company had lifted a finger in efforts to help contain the spill. 

Most of us will remember the image of the MSC Ines that ran aground on the day of the storm, spread eagle, completely obstructing accesses to the port. After titanic efforts managed to free this behemoth from the sea floor it once again in the high winds, as if straight out the lyrics to a Queen song, broke free and smashed straight into the Maersk Vallyick wedging it against the quayside. If this story was put together by DreamWorks, here the iconic ‘once upon a time’ line would sound the beginning of this rather nightmarish fairytale. During this collision, two severely damaged containers fancied a dip in the harbour spilling their artificial fragmented guts into the water for almost 24 hours before port authorities pulled them from their watery grave. Fast forward two weeks and the ruptured containers could still be found occupying space on the pier, with its load of plastic pellets being blown across the railway and back into the water. 


At this point in our story it may be worth trying to quantify the amount of nurdles that ended up in the drink. These little villains, the size of a lentil, are packed together into 25kg bags and loaded into a 6m long container which could house up to 900 bags of low and high-density polyethylene, roughly that translates to about 20tons of plastic per container!  

So then, why when the containers was first discovered was a full scale clean up not organized considering these nurdles were mostly still contained within the harbour? Seeing as nurdles float they could have been easily pulled from the water whilst still in port, making this unfortunate environmental mishap thousands of times more manageable. This is still an environmental emergency that needs full attention. So often environmental news falls to the wayside, where it is quickly swept under the rug so that money does not have to be spent. This is not the first time this has happened, in 2012 a similar incident occurred in Hong Kong where the company responsible for the spill footed the cleanup bill of $1.29 million. Here action was taken quickly in order to minimize the total effort required to clean up after these savage nurdles. 

Weeks after the storm, the Mediterranean Shipping Company eventually came forward assuming full responsibility for the unfortunate incident that has no doubt caused an unimaginable level of harm to our coast. They have agreed to cover all the costs associated with the cleanup. Appointed by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) Drizit Environmental has been challenged with this monumental task of nurdle hunting. Operations manager Captain Ian Rosario is not able to put a figure together with regard to the cost of the cleanup as talks with their insurer are still underway. 

It’s imperative that we take outmost care of our oceans. Image: Nic Aberdein


Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance has called for the company to be prosecuted to which Rosario had this to say about the spilt cargo – “It’s allowed to be carried by sea and in containers. It was just an unfortunate incident that occurred. The ship’s crew were caught unaware. They dropped anchor and did everything they could. It is unfortunate that there was a small collision with another vessel that led to the containers falling off. By virtue of this the cargo spilled out.” Rosario also went on record to say that he was not aware of nurdles becoming toxic over time, which is the main concern of countless environmentalists. These toxic pellets have the potential to threaten the livelihood and health of 12000 subsistence fisherman in the Durban area alone.

When the port manager Moshe Motlohi was questioned on the incident, his report seemed to be rather different. Motlohi went on to say: “The pollution control manager immediately alerted the harbour master, as per protocol, and contacted TNPA’s emergency spill response contractor who arrived soon after. Our spill response contractor conducted their assessment and commenced their clean-up operation late on the night of October 11. By October 12, all bags that had been located within the port waters had been removed by the spill response contractor.”

Although it may be too little too late, where a full-scale cleanup is concerned, a somber lesson needs to be learned. In the future measures need to be put in place to ensure that in the unlikely event this happens again the incident would receive top priority from the relevant authorities. In the end this is an issue that effects everyone and everything along the coast, however it must not be left up to the public to take action before port authorities and government. Unlike the metaphor, perhaps this time there is a reason to cry over spilt milk. 


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1 Comment

  1. Llewelyn
    28 November, 2017 at 3:43 pm · Reply

    Great article Sean! I smaak a prawn or two but am not keen for the toxins you were talking about. Hopefully your article raises awareness about these horrible nurdles.

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