They’re the size of a lentil, so you’d think that it is no big deal if they get into the environment, but these tiny plastic nurdles pose a huge threat to ocean life, and by extension human health.
That is why there is a mad scramble to collect the millions of them which have washed up on beaches in the Western Cape after a spill from a ship off Plettenberg Bay recently.
They were first noticed by the Shark Spotters Coastal Rehabilitation team who found them washed up on South peninsula beaches, with swathes of them littering the shores at Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, Simonstown, Millers Point, Witsands, and Kommetjie.
Tidal drift and winds are likely to bring more to shore, and they need to be removed before either being embedded on the shore or washed back into the ocean.
Clare Swithenbank-Bowman, founder of the non-profit organisation (NPO) Litter4Tokens, said the harmful microplastic pellets presented a huge problem, particularly in light of reports that at the current rate of pollution there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
“The microplastics are hugely detrimental to both humans, as well as marine ecosystems, quickly finding their way into the food system where they cause ulceration, starvation and death. We’re particularly concerned as it’s been discovered that these nurdles follow the same ocean currents as turtles. The ocean is the earth’s life force, and if we don’t get on top of this plastic crisis now, the ocean is literally going to choke. It’s now or never,” she said.
Nurdles are used to mould plastic products but in the sea they enter the food chain when fish and filter-feeders like whales mistake them for food, such as eggs or baby jellyfish. They’ve found their way into our food sources.
Nurdles also littered beaches along the coast of Durban after a storm caused a ship to lose 49 tons of the pellet in October 2017. It is estimated that more than 2 million of the beads entered our waters. Clean up operations from Ballito in the north all the way down to the lower south coast involved mechanical measures and the laborious task of sifting them by hand, mostly by volunteers.
Litter4Tokens has a number of projects, including an innovative recycling solution where recyclable plastic is exchanged for food tokens at participating shops, which contributes to the challenges of pollution and poverty.
According to the organisation, since its campaign started in 2015 more than 500 000 bags of litter have been gathered before they could get into the ocean, which helped feed 156 000 people in remote communities.
Cleanup operations on a Cape Town beach soon after the nurdle spill washed the harmful pellets ashore. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Swithenbank-Bowman’s award-winning Mermaid Tear Catcher (MTC) is a frisbee with holes in it that people can use to sieve through sand to retain the nurdles for disposal. It also works as a frisbee, so it serves two purposes.
“The aim of the Litter4Tokens campaign is to instill pride and cleanliness by putting respect back into the communities, and encouraging hard work while employing and educating the nation.
“This campaign is also addressing climate change, global public health, and global poverty at the same time, creating a circular economy, helping retailers and manufacturers get their products back,” she said.
If you want to get involved by getting a MTC so you can help clean up the beaches, or find out more, go to www.litter4tokens.co.za.