South African scientists use their noodles to track pesky nurdles
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