Return of the nurdles
Xavier Zylstra
Xavier Zylstra is a Deputy Head at our Environmental Education Centre. He joined us in April 2009. Xavier has always been fascinated by natural history and is passionate about marine biology and the fauna and flora of the Western Cape as well as local geology and archaeology. His most recent project has been the production of the marine biology content for ‘Marine Sciences’- a new national Matric subject, launched at pilot schools in 2020. In this current Covid environment he has been working remotely from Cape Infanta.

Most of you should recall the big nurdle spill disaster of 2017, when two damaged containers of nurdles went overboard in the Durban harbour. A delayed reaction led to so many drifting into the sea and being deposited all along the Kwa-Zulu Natal and Eastern Cape shoreline that environmental disaster teams had to be called in to clean up as many as possible.

For the uninitiated, though, a brief explanation is called for: A nurdle is a tiny plastic bead, about 3mm in diameter. This is the form in which virgin plastic leaves chemical factories. They are packaged in 25kg bags and transported to other countries by the container load. There they go to plastic product factories, are melted down and injection moulded into the endless variety of plastic products and packaging without which modern humans simply wouldn’t be able to survive. The chemical composition of the nurdles being used will be specific to the type of plastic required (as indicated by the numbers in the recycling indicator triangle on most plastic products).

Nurdles are virgin plastic beads, which are melted down and used to make plastic products (Image credit: Xavier Zylstra) 

Because they resemble fish eggs and miniature jellies (jellyfish), any nurdles which end up in the ocean are mistaken for food and happily ingested by sardines and other small fish, as well as turtle hatchlings and any animals which filter sea water to obtain food- from tube worms to whales. Ingesting plastic is disastrous in itself, as many of the smaller animals cannot egest (poop out) the offensive plastic once it is in their gut. This makes them unable to take in real food and ends in a painful death by starvation.

When nurdles are viewed under a microscope they have a very rough surface. This seems to attract toxins from the sea, making each nurdle a toxic mix of petrochemicals and other additives, along with the toxic coating absorbed from polluted sea water. Once this enters the gut of any animal, the toxins are absorbed. The small amount absorbed from a few nurdles may not kill a small animal, in the short term, but many of these small animals are eaten by larger ones and the toxins accumulate up the food chain to possibly kill or debilitate higher predators, like tuna, sharks, seals and dolphins and make human consumers very ill.

On the morning of Sunday 6th of October, I was on my way to join family visiting at Cape Infanta (a tiny beach village at the mouth of the Breede River)to go for a walk to explore rockpools. The weather in the preceding few days was a peculiar combination of a stormy cold front and a cut off low, causing normal winter storm conditions, but with a South Easterly gale rather than the normal North Wester. These conditions combined to create very rough seas, large waves and a howling onshore gale, bringing with it the normal flood of bluebottles and flotsam. To my horror, the beach leading up to the rocky shore had more than bluebottles on it. There were multiple strands of nurdles close to the high tide mark and many of the rock pools were inundated with them!

Nurdles, nurdles, everywhere! (Image credit: Xavier Zylstra) 

How do you pick up millions of tiny plastic beads all over the beach? Had we googled it, we would have found that our eventual clever idea had been thought of already. I started off by literally picking them up one by one, but that clearly was not going to be at all effective. Then, a combination of suggestions from the family group sent us off in search of brooms, hand brooms, dust pans, buckets and nets or sieves. We then swept up the nurdles, along with the sand they were lying on, dumped the mixture into a bucket of water, gave it a good stir, waited for a few seconds and scooped up the nurdles as they floated to the surface.

Nurdle collecting kit (Image credit: Xavier Zylstra) 

A team of eight of us cleaned up a stretch of beach about 100m long in about four hours and ended up with just over 4kg of nurdles. This seemed to be a collecting beach for nurdles as other areas had almost none. Unfortunately, much of the coastline at Infanta consists of boulders, enabling the nurdles to slip through them and making their collection impossible. That evening, reports started coming in of similar scenes from Plettenberg Bay to Arniston. The following day saw the mobilising of the Breede River Conservancy Trust, based in Witsand, and their rangers came to assist the small band of Infanta locals to harvest the new crop of nurdles. We are hugely grateful to this amazing band of dedicated conservationists. Together, we collected almost 8kg of nurdles!

The result of a morning’s nurdle collecting (Image credit: Xavier Zylstra) 

The hypothesis being put forward is that the high seas and onshore winds had eroded and churned up many of the long beaches on the south and Eastern Cape coastlines and that the nurdles were part of the 2017 spill being released from their resting place deep in those beaches, back into the ocean. A friend of mine who has worked in the plastic industry had a look at the photos I sent him and was fairly sure that these were brand new nurdles and the result of a recent spill. If they can be traced to a specific vessel, the representative company would be obliged to foot the bill for industrial scale clean-ups, as happened in 2017. Sadly, it is unlikely that the source of the spill will ever be traced.

It is likely that every onshore gale event will see new nurdles come to shore and that the Agulhas current will carry them further down the coastline. That leaves it up to all you ocean loving eco-warriors to keep an eye on your local beaches and have your buckets, brooms and sieves on standby, in order to clean up what can be found. Every nurdle picked up off the beach is one less nurdle in the food chain.

Interested to learn more about our shoreline and marine biology? Xavier co-teaches our online Rocky Shore Biology course, starting 13 October, and runs our online Marine Biobasics course, starting 10 November.


Nurdle update (29 October 2020):

The nurdles have made it to the Cape Peninsula, with sightings confirmed in Gordon’s Bay, Strandfontein, Muizenberg and Kommetjie. 

You can help with the cleanup. Read more on the issue via the Daily Maverick

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