South African sci­en­tists use their noo­dles to track pesky nur­dles

Daily Dispatch - - News - TANYA FAR­BER

In case you’ve never heard of a nur­dle, you’re prob­a­bly sur­rounded by mil­lions of them right now: they’re the small plas­tic pel­lets (about the size of a sin­gle lentil) that make up nearly all our plas­tic prod­ucts.

Once in the ocean, they are highly buoy­ant, float on the sur­face, and come un­der the di­rect in­flu­ence of wind, waves and ocean cur­rents. This – and their en­vi­ron­men­tal per­sis­tence – mean that they are distribute­d widely in the world’s oceans and de­posited on beaches even in re­mote lo­ca­tions.

We know that as a re­sult of all this they kill ma­rine life and cause ma­jor dis­tur­bance to the en­tire ecosys­tem, but track­ing these pesky lit­tle pol­lu­tants is another mat­ter al­to­gether.

En­ter a clever group of SA sci­en­tists, lead au­thor Eckart Schu­mann (Nelson Man­dela Univer­sity), Fiona MacKay (Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal) and Na­dine Stry­dom (Nelson Man­dela Univer­sity ), who have just had a pa­per pub­lished in the South African Jour­nal of Sci­ence.

On Oc­to­ber 10 2017, a ma­jor storm hit Dur­ban and a ma­jor spill of nur­dles pro­vided an un­ex­pected opportunit­y to track bil­lions of these flat 5mm discs made of plas­tic.

“Al­most a month later, the scale of the spill pre­cip­i­tated the en­gage­ment of lo­cal and global sal­vage and emer­gency response com­pa­nies to clean 200km of beaches north and south of Dur­ban,” ac­cord­ing to Schu­mann.

The event was recog­nised to be a ma­jor pol­lu­tion in­ci­dent, but de­spite ex­ten­sive ef­forts to col­lect the nur­dles, nine months later less than 20% of them had been re­cov­ered.

As­sisted by the strong Agul­has cur­rent, within a mere two months, the nur­dles dis­persed along more than 2,000km of coast­line where they washed up on beaches and were re­ported by the pub­lic.

Schu­mann and col­leagues re­con­structed the con­di­tions and fac­tors in this dis­per­sal over such a dis­tance in a rel­a­tively short pe­riod.

They found that the nur­dles were en­trained in cer­tain coastal ar­eas for long pe­ri­ods, but were rapidly trans­ported far­ther afield when sus­tained winds blew.

Scale of the spill pre­cip­i­tated the en­gage­ment of sal­vage com­pa­nies Eckart Schu­mann

Lead au­thor of study pub­lished in SA Jour­nal of Sci­ence

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