What the nurdle?

Just 370ml of nurdles removed from local beaches could save hundres of animals and earn you a Citizen Science excursion with Cape Radd. PHOTO: Cape Radd/Facebook
Just 370ml of nurdles removed from local beaches could save hundres of animals and earn you a Citizen Science excursion with Cape Radd. PHOTO: Cape Radd/Facebook

The community, local organisations and everyone in between are coming together to remove nurdles from local beaches following reports of the plastic pellets having washed up on several beaches during the past few weeks.

The Shark Spotters, a shark safety and research organisation, sent out a public plea on Thursday 22 October, stating that nurdles had washed up on several beaches and urging beachgoers to help pick them up.

“Our coastal rehabilitation team has been noticing a lot of nurdles washed up on South Peninsula beaches over the past week – with nurdles found at Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, Simon’s Town, Miller’s Point, Witsands and Kommetjie so far,” the organisation wrote on its social media platforms.

Nurdles, according to Shark Spotters, are “tiny beads of virgin plastic that are (intended to be) melted down and injection moulded to make a variety of new plastic products”.

Mike Barron, the course director at Cape Research and Diver Development (Radd) marine field station, says there are two main problems with nurdles appearing in the environment.

“These micro-plastics look like food sources in the ocean and so a lot of fish, marine mammals and birds will eat them, thinking they’re food, plankton or fish eggs. The plastic can’t be digested and broken down in the body, so the animals either choke or starve to death on them,” he says, explaining that the plastics keep the animals feeling full because they are not passed through their systems, and the animals then stop eating.

A secondary issue, he says, is the magnification of toxins through the food chain.

“The plastics, because they’re non-organic, create a surface area for the attachment of bacteria and organisms and densities of toxins build up on them,” says Barron.

What this means, he explains, is when smaller animals consume these bacteria- and toxin-ridden plastics, the bacteria or toxin lives inside the animal. The problem arises as these small animals are consumed by bigger animals, and those are then consumed by even bigger animals. The bacteria or toxin continues to multiply in each host, causing illness.

The Beach Co-op’s Aaniyah Omardien, founder and director of the not-for-profit company that aims to ensure the health of the ocean, says the scope of the assumed nurdle spill is far-reaching.

“There are nurdles that we’re finding on Cape beaches such as Muizenberg, as well as southern Cape beaches like De Bakke in Mossel Bay, Cape Agulhas and Plettenberg Bay,” she says.

While the public’s efforts are making a world of a difference, she says there have been no developments with regards to finding the source of the spill, and possibly the owners of the vessel they may have spilt from or the plastics company shipping them.

“What’s been amazing is to see so many citizens and beach-lovers get out there and clean local beaches. But we at the Beach Co-op really still feel the vessel and company need to take responsibility.”

With so many people assisting in the clean-up efforts, Omardien offers advice.

“You don’t need to go out and buy a sieve to separate the nurdles from the sand. Simply use a small rectangular bucket or container, fill it with seawater, go to the high tide line (the mark left on the sand where the water reaches during high tide), and grab a handful of sand and throw it in the bucket. The nurdles will float and sand will sink,” she says.

Cape Radd is encouraging people to get involved by starting a limited-offer exchange.

“If people collect a jar of 370ml of nurdles, they can exchange those for a Citizen Science trip where we teach them about the biodiversity in False Bay and they’ll get to snorkel. The idea is to put a value on their time and effort and basically create an exchange economy without money. We also want to raise awareness,” says Barron.

The City of Cape Town’s environmental management department is also calling on citizens to help with clean-up efforts.

“I want to thank those who are assisting by collecting the nurdles from the beaches. This is a mark of active citizenship. I also want to encourage more to join. The more nurdles collected, the safer our beaches. Also, every nurdle collected helps protect our fragile marine ecosystem,” said the City’s Mayco member for spatial planning and environment Marian Nieuwoudt in a statement.

Shark Spotters at Fish Hoek and Muizenberg will be doing nurdle collections, as well as at Swan Lodge. There are more companies and organisations coming on board at collection points each day.

The Pristine Earth Collective, a non-government organisation (NGO) which lobbies towards a single-use, plastic-free South Africa, is said to have ideas for these plastics which will be taking shape in the next few weeks.

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