Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Investigation

Nurdles: Europe's worst unknown plastic pollution crisis

  • It is estimated that about 160,000 tonnes of nurdles infiltrate the EU environment annually (Photo: Davide Mancini)
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From the rugged coastlines of the North Sea to the sun-drenched beaches of the southern Mediterranean, Europe faces a pervasive yet little-known environmental threat: pollution from tiny, round plastic pellets.

They are called nurdles, and they are the foundational building blocks for nearly all plastic products, from yogurt cups to toothbrushes, computer casings, and car bumpers. But as essential as they are for consumer goods, nurdles are also a vast source of plastic pollution.

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  • Nurdle pollution in the beach of Tarragona, Spain (Photo: Davide Mancini)

Each year, more than 250,000 tonnes of these minuscule spheres are reckoned to enter the world's oceans, equivalent to about 10 trillion pellets, or 15 billion plastic bottles. By weight, they make up the second-largest source of ocean microplastics after tire dust. (Nurdles are microplastics from the start due to their diminutive size, something also known as primary microplastics.)

Europe significantly adds to this flow of pollution. One estimate found that approximately 160,000 tonnes of nurdles infiltrate the EU environment annually — a volume nearly matching the combined plastic recycling of Denmark and Sweden.

Making their way down storm drains, into rivers and waterways, the lightweight beads, each weighing around 20 milligrams, quickly disperse in the environment, carried by winds and ocean currents. Some drift for years; others eventually wash up on shorelines, where, undisturbed, they may remain for hundreds or even thousands of years.

The most severe cases of pollution can be seen in cities such as Antwerp, Belgium; Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Tarragona, Spain; and Brindisi, Italy. These locations, all of which host extensive pellet production and processing facilities, show nurdles scattered across various landscapes, from beaches and riverbanks to agricultural fields.

According to the European Commission, approximately 65.3 million tonnes of plastic pellets were produced in the EU in 2019.

However, the issue extends beyond these areas. Reports have highlighted elevated levels of nurdle pollution in inland regions across northern Europe and locations far away from industrial sites, including the Azorean islands, situated some 1500 kilometers off the coast of Portugal.

Researchers say the consequences of this ubiquitous contamination are far-reaching, impacting ecosystems and human health alike.

Yet nurdles remain conspicuously overlooked in the plastic pollution debate.

While more visible post-consumer waste such as soft drink bottles and grocery bags face an increasingly stringent regulatory landscape, these small plastic orbs continue to evade the legislative oversight warranted by their pervasive presence.

Currently, there are no mandatory regulations at the international level compelling pellet-handling companies to implement proactive measures for preventing nurdle loss or reporting pollution incidents.

Similarly, most state governments lack rules for monitoring, preventing, or cleaning up nurdle spills, causing confusion when incidents occur as local and national environmental agencies try to determine responsibility.

"It's disheartening," said Tanya Cox, a marine plastic specialist at the conservation charity Fauna & Flora International in Scotland, expressing her disappointment with the lack of regulations around plastic pellets.

"We have this massive source of microplastic pollution out there, and it seems like no one cares about it," she lamented. "It's as if these pellets were invisible."

Chronic issue

Every year, trillions of plastic pellets are manufactured from natural gas or oil by major multinational corporations such as INEOS, Borealis, BASF, ExxonMobil, Sabic, Repsol, Solvay, Covestro, DuPont, and Total, shipped to factories, and then moulded into a useful shape.

Not all of them make their way safely to the end of a production line, instead finding rather mundane routes into the environment.

They can fall off hoses during loading onto trucks; escape from rail cars during transport to distribution centres; leak from poorly sealed bags, slip through machinery cracks during transfers; be blown away by the wind from open-air sacks; or be transported through air ventilation systems and on-site drainage.

Sometimes, a major spill — often during sea transport — sends millions or even billions of nurdles out in the landscape all at once, coating shorelines with thick deposits resembling snow banks.

A number of such incidents have happened in recent years. In 2019, the container ship MSC Zoe lost more than 22 tonnes of plastic pellets in the North Sea when a container was damaged during a storm; they washed up on the Dutch coast.

A year later, a container ship sailing from Rotterdam to Tananger, Norway, shed 26 tonnes of nurdles amid a storm. Plastic granules were later found in over two hundred distinct locations in Oslo's fjord and along the Swedish coast.

While such large-scale incidents receive considerable media coverage, they actually account for a rather tiny share of the overall nurdle pollution.

"Big spills, like by ship containers and barge — that's probably about once or twice a year," said Tom Gammage, a marine biologist and ocean plastic pollution campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an advocacy group in London.

According to a 2018 report by the OSPAR Commission, a UN entity overseeing international collaboration for marine environment protection, shipping contributed to less than 0.2 percent of the total annual nurdle loss in Europe, with producers, intermediary facilities, and processors taking the lion's share.

"The steady loss that occurs every day during on-loading and off-loading and transportation," said Gammage. "That's the real deal."

Tarragona and Barcelona account for about 70 percent of the plastic manufacturing industry in Spain (Photo: Davide Mancini)

Far-reaching impact

The presence of nurdles in the natural environment can wreak havoc in multiple ways.

At just about 5 millimeters in diameter, they can resemble fish eggs and as such mistaken for food by an array of marine animals.

One assessment found that 95 percent of fulmars in the North Sea had plastics in their stomachs — one bird had a staggering 273 nurdles inside its body. Meanwhile, autopsies of puffins on the Isle of May revealed that nurdles are now part of the birds' usual diet.

When consumed, the nibs can obstruct an animal's intestines, leading to a false sense of fullness and causing the animal to abstain from real food. This can eventually lead to starvation, especially if the creature's digestive tract is too small to pass the nurdle.

The environmental impact is equally concerning. Nurdles washing up on beaches can alter critical characteristics like sand temperature and permeability. Such changes can affect wildlife, particularly sea turtles that rely on these areas for egg incubation.

In regions affected by large nurdle spills, these plastic pellets have been found to smother seagrass meadows, hindering their ability to photosynthesise and threatening the many species that depend on these meadows for breeding and feeding.

Moreover, nurdles can leach chemical additives, including colorants, stabilisers, and flame retardants, some of which, such as Bisphenol A, are known to be endocrine disruptors and have been linked to carcinogenic effects. These additives are incorporated during production to impart specific properties to the plastic polymers.

An EU-funded study revealed that the additives and contaminants released by these plastic particles in water can lead to deformities in sea urchin embryos.

Nurdles also can attract and bind dangerous pollutants known as persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic substances (PBTs) — a class of hard-to-break-down chemicals that include DDT, a long-outlawed insecticide, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a group of synthetic industrial chemicals, mercury, and various other noxious compounds.

"A lot of these substances are hydrophobic and cling to nurdles as they drift through aquatic environments," explained Joaquim Rovira Solano, a biochemist and microplastic researcher at the University of Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain.

"Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of pellets than in the water," he said. "And we know from lab studies that when a fish eats a pellet, some of those pollutants can come loose."

Furthermore, nurdles can serve as a carrier for harmful bacteria, such as E. coli or even cholera, which colonise the slimy biofilm that forms on submerged plastic, transporting them from sewage outfalls and agricultural runoff to bathing waters and shellfish beds.

Humans are not spared the repercussions.

Research has revealed that microplastics — whether nurdles or larger, broken-down pieces of plastic — have infiltrated our food chain and are regularly ingested by humans.

While there is still much we don't fully understand about the potential harm caused by plastics in the human body, recent investigations indicate that microplastics can be found in the bloodstream of up to 80 percent of all adults, where they may potentially affect our cells.

"We may not eat the plastic beads ourselves," said Rovira Solano, "but nurdles seem to be finding their way back to us."

This is the first instalment of a two-part investigation delving into the issue of plastic pellet pollution. Check out part two for a more comprehensive exploration of this critical yet understated environmental crisis.

Curious for more? Part 2 of this investigation will be published tomorrow

The production of this investigation is supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute IPI, the European Journalism Centre EJC and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.

Author bio

Marcello Rossi is a freelance journalist specialising in environmental and climate change topics. Davide Mancini is a freelance journalist and videomaker, based in Spain.

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