The night of 1 to 2 January 2019 saw the biggest ‘breakthrough’ in the nurdle story in the Netherlands. Prior to this, only the plastics industry and the environmental movement knew what nurdles were. On this night though, nurdles pollution became a well-known phenomenon for many people in the Netherlands. 

Infamous, through definitely not appreciated, this eventful night was the night that the container ship MSC Zoe lost 300 containers in the northern Wadden Sea. Some of these containers were filled with nurdles. According to the University of Groningen, at least 24 million plastic granules washed up on the Dutch coast, mostly on the beaches of the island of Schiermonnikoog. 

Rijkswaterstaat (the executive arm of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment) calculated that MSC Zoe did not only lose 600 kilos of polyethylene nurdles – floating plastic granules that wash onto land after a while – but also lost 10,000 kilos of polystyrene nurdles. These granules are denser so do not float but instead sink and are now lying on the seabed of the North Sea. 

Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment has commissioned a study into the ecological effects of the MSC Zoe disaster. The nurdles are virtually impossible to clean up and will remain in the sea, on the beach and in the dunes forever. She pledged to the House of Representatives that the final report would be ready in October 2020, but that deadline has now passed. 

A thousand-fold every day

These type of disasters regularly happen elsewhere too. On 23 February 2020, a container ship sailing from Rotterdam to Tananger in Norway lost 26 tons of nurdles during a storm. Plastic granules were later found in 250 different places in Norway’s Oslo fjord and along the Swedish coast. 

As if these incidents are not bad enough, an even bigger problem is the volume of nurdles that flow into the environment every day directly from factories. The scale is so large, and it happens every day, that the MSC Zoe disaster pales in comparison. In Europe alone, 1,000 MSC Zoe disaster equivalents happen every day. 

The Activity Report 2019 produced by the Port of Antwerp and the plastic manufacturers allied in PlasticsEurope give a good indication of the quantities of spilled nurdles. The Port Authority cleared an incredible 3.3 tons of plastic granules from five different sites in Antwerp. Given that one kilogram contains about 50,000 plastic granules, an estimated 165 billion plastic granules were collected. This is almost seven times more than the number spilled from MSC Zoe. 

Economic versus ecological damage

As nurdles are extremely cheap, many manufacturers are very careless during production and transport. The market value of the 24,000,000 plastic granules from the MSC Zoe is not even EUR 500. One kilo of plastic consists of about 50,000 granules and only costs EUR 0.95. 

In contrast, the ecological damage is immense. Once in the sea, the nurdles cannot be cleared up anymore and marine biologists often find them in the stomachs and intestines of sea birds, fish and other sea creatures who mistake the plastic granules for food. 

Research by The Great Nurdle Hunt has shown that more than 220 species of marine animals eat plastic. They sometimes eat so much that they feel ‘full’, stop eating real food and starve to death. On top of this, they ingest the plastic’s chemical additives that are not only harmful to them, but are also harmful to any other animal – including ourselves – that eats these fish. 

Plastic is so much more than just a type of material. It contains substances such as heavy metals that adhere to it during the production process and chemical additives that are intentionally added to give the plastic particular qualities such as colour or flexibility. Furthermore, various toxic substances that are already in the water such as DDT and PCBs, easily attach to nurdles. 

Invisible disaster

Nurdles on beaches and in dunes are barely visible as the small plastic granules can hardly be distinguished in the sand. Even well-trained eyes only see a fraction of the problem, and these are often the granules that float such as polyethylene and polypropylene. 

 The other half of the manufactured nurdles consists of plastics that do not float such as PET granules that are used for bottled drinks. On the verges and in the drain outside the gates of BASF and Covestro in Antwerp, we found countless plastic granules that did not pass the float test. These granules would sink to the bottom in open water, just like the polystyrene nurdles from the MSC Zoe and various types of plastic, such as PVC, that are produced as a powder. 

Plastic never decomposes, but instead, under the influence of UV light, wind, waves and other natural elements, breaks down into ever smaller fragments over time. Nurdles, categorised as ‘microplastics’ as they are smaller than 5 millimetres, fall apart into even smaller ‘nanoplastics’. They eventually disintegrate into such tiny microscopic pieces that they can be eaten by the very smallest animals at the bottom of the food chain. 

The consequences for animals and the environment and the consequences for human health are reason enough for Plastic Soup Foundation to use the means it has available to put a stop to this invisible disaster. 

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