Nurdling November - help reduce plastic debris in our oceans

By The University of Western Australia

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When 2.25 billion plastic pellets fall into the ocean, where do they go? They join the other trillions of plastic fragments in the ocean, with one notable difference – we know where they came from and who is responsible. This research aims to detect these nurdles on our coasts and contribute to an international exploration of how we manage this type of pollution spill. It is a big field or research and we need your help to make a big impact.

Meet the researcher

I am Dr Harriet Paterson and I work on the Albany Campus of UWA on the south coast of Western Australia. Over the last five years I have become interested in plastic debris in the ocean. My first encounter with this problem was with autopsying Mutton Birds that had been collected by the Department of Parks and Wildlife. I was horrified to discover that they had consumed plastic. I then began looking at plastic on our beaches, and I have been increasingly concerned at the volume of plastic debris that washes onto our beaches every day.

I have been exploring the dynamics of plastic on our beaches and I have a number of students investigating various aspects of the problem. We have looked at where plastic accumulates and preliminary results demonstrate that plastic fragments are washed along the beach and accumulate at the roughest end of the beach. For the south coast of Western Australia this generally means there is more debris at the eastern end. We are also looking in our fish, and most individuals that we have looked at contain plastic fibres.

The Project

One of the items that washes onto our shores are Nurdles. These are small lentil sized plastic pellets, that all our plastic products are made from. Since we began making plastic things, we have been making Nurdles, and they have been spilt in factories and lost to the ocean during shipping.

It is impossible to estimate how many Nurdles are in the ocean and it is equally impossible to identify the polluter. However in October 2017 the MSC Susanna lost 49 tonnes of high and low density Polyethylene to Durban Harbour during a storm. The South Africans have undertaken a concerted effort to collect as many Nurdles as they can, but there are millions still floating around the ocean from that spill. In addition to the South African coast being affected by this spill, they have been found in St Helena and they are highly visible on their black beaches. The appearance on the 16th of May highlighted the global impact that such a spill can have.

It is highly likely that these Durban Nurdles will wash up on the south coast of Western Australia. They will hitch a ride on the prevailing currents and be blown across the surface of the water. Their path is likely to be chaotic as they are picked up by ocean currents and eddies and predicting how long it will take is filled with uncertainties.

In order to detect the Durban Nurdles on our beaches we need to go and look. However finding Nurdles on such a long and sparsely populated coast is too big a task for an individual, which is why it is being run as a Citizen Science project. Citizen Scientists are collecting samples from most of the southern coast and some locations on the west coast during November 2018. All the samples will be processed in Albany, with a couple of objectives. The main objective is to identify Durban Nurdles. The importance of this cannot be over stated. We have an opportunity to contribute to the global discussion of how the polluter pays for their waste. This event is likely to become a test case for pollution across international boundaries and documenting it is vital. The pollution is just as bad as an oil spill and its effects will go on for many years, so we need to understand how it works.

The samples will also be used to characterise the local Nurdle population and compare this to other similar studies. We will also use it to track a smaller spill of black Nurdles which may have originated in the Swan River. These Nurdles appear to occupy about 50km of the south coast and we will track their movement over the next decade. This will result in a better understanding of how these objects move along the coast, and contribute to designing effective clean-up techniques.

Why this research is important

Plastic in the environment is a growing problem. It is visually unpleasant but it is likely to have health implications for animals and humans.

Plastic in the environment can be devastating for wildlife. There are obvious issues such as entanglement in plastic materials, but there are less obvious one such as starvation due to intestinal blockages and potential decline in reproductive health. Unfortunately Nurdles are small and usually white and look very similar to fish eggs and other highly nutritional food items in the marine environment. Once a plastic Nurdle or fragment is inside a fish it can leach toxic chemicals. This includes leaching plasticizers from the item itself, or from toxic chemicals that have become adsorbed to the exterior of the plastic item. We are yet to fully understand the implications for wild life, but the indicators suggest a negative outcome.

It is highly likely that some of the issues faced by animals will affect humans too. Some of the plasticizers used in plastics are thought to be Endocrine Disruptors and effect Estrogen Production, resulting in potential issues for our reproductive health. While research on this issue is being done, there is not yet a consensus between scientists and more research is needed. The fact that reproductive health is an area of researchers, suggests that reducing exposure to plastics is a positive choice.

We need to recognise that plastic in the environment and the potential health implications is a symptom of our reliance on plastic products. Reducing our plastic consumption will reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals and reduce the amount of plastic entering the oceans in the form of Nurdles.

How your support will help document the Durban Nurdles.

Your contribution will allow me to conduct my research which will benefit us by:

  • Documenting the arrival of Durban Nurdles
  • Timing and location of arrivals and size of any Nurdle cohorts
  • Characterising the local Nurdle community
  • Raising awareness of Nurdles and other plastic debris
  • Developing an understanding of the link between consuming plastic products and the amount of plastic pollution it causes

Funds donated will be used to pay for:

  • Transportation of sample to Albany
  • Technical analysis of samples using specialist techniques
  • Research assistance to sort and categorise samples

Thank you for your interest in my project. Your support will help us contribute to the global discussion on plastic debris in the ocean. While our research is only one part of the jigsaw, concerning the Durban spill, it is the first international exploration of a major pollution spill across international boundaries. We will be setting an example for future spills and shaping the way polluters are held to account.

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Team Members

The University of Western Australia