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Are efforts to search for minuscule plastic pieces on UK beaches as a means of waste management effective?
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Are efforts to search for minuscule plastic pieces on UK beaches as a means of waste management effective?


As the storm approached on the horizon, I searched through the debris on the shoreline, using tweezers to pick through it. It didn’t take long for me to find my first nurdle, hidden among the sand and blending in with its surroundings. Beside me, a woman was also collecting sand and placing it in a bucket of seawater. As she stirred, multiple nurdles floated to the surface.

“It’s impossible to make a dent,” I thought. Despite removing more than 3,000 pieces of microplastic during our cleanup, thousands more winked at us from the sand as we left Camber Sands beach. These tiny pre-production plastic pellets, called nurdles, are littering UK beaches in such numbers that beach cleanups can’t keep up.

Andy Dinsdale, founder of the environmental organisation Strandliners based in East Sussex, believes that trying to remove all the nurdles would be a daunting task due to their widespread presence.

Small plastic beads, roughly the size of a lentil, are called nurdles and are produced from fossil fuels for the purpose of creating plastic goods. These nurdles are transported globally via various modes of transportation such as roads, railways, and ships, and are then melted to form the plastic products we use in our daily routines.

A volunteer shows nurdles collected during a beach clean organised on the Tregantle beach part of the Whitesand Bay, Freathy.

Christy Leavitt is the plastics campaign director at the conservation group Oceana. She agrees that removing all the plastic pellets from our oceans and coastlines is “simply not possible”. Studies have shown there are more than 170tn plastic particles floating in the world’s oceans.

Why are cleanups important? Dinsdale and his team use them to collect data and demonstrate the severity of the nurdle problem. The information gathered from cleanups has influenced laws like the plastic bag tax and the prohibition of single-use items like cotton buds.

Beverley Coombs, a volunteer for Strandliners, warns that not keeping track of the data while organizing the rubbish would result in an endless cycle. Simply picking up, bagging, and throwing away the trash without documenting it means that no one will know what the trash is and how to prevent it from resurfacing.

Nurdle spills may happen if cargo ships overturn or accidentally release containers in rough seas, as permitted by global maritime regulations to protect human life. Once in the ocean, these small plastic pellets can harm marine animals and cause severe damage to the ecosystem.

According to Dani Whitlock, a project officer for the Scottish charity Fidra, the amount of nurdle pollution is on the rise despite efforts by the industry to address the issue voluntarily. She believes that mismanagement, improper handling, and a lack of accountability are to blame for these incidents of plastic pellet spills.

In the past year, there have been four significant incidents of pellets being spilled worldwide, resulting in millions of pellets washing up on shores in France, India, Dubai, and Spain. According to Fidra’s yearly Great Nurdle Hunt, 93% of their surveys have found pellets. Whitlock states that these voluntary efforts are ineffective.

Jars with nurdles collected from Camber Sands.

According to Leavitt, the solution to this issue must be addressed at the source, which is the production stage. Approximately 15 million tons of plastic debris is discharged into our oceans annually. Leavitt adds that this amount is equivalent to dumping two garbage trucks filled with plastic into the ocean every minute. Once the plastic waste enters the ocean, it becomes extremely challenging to remove.

Although individuals are taking steps to decrease their personal plastic usage, it is ultimately the responsibility of governments and plastic manufacturers to address nurdle pollution. Implementing measures such as reducing plastic production and controlling its release into water sources is a more impactful solution than attempting to clean up the damage once it has already made its way to the ocean.

Whitlock believes that the plastic problem is relatively easy to solve as there are viable solutions. She suggests implementing improved legislation and regulations, as well as conducting independent audits of supply chains on a global scale. This could include labeling nurdles as hazardous to ensure careful handling during transportation, potentially reducing pellet pollution by 95%.

Dinsdale is perplexed as to why plastic manufacturers are not concerned with safeguarding their source materials. He believes that it is in their best interest to avoid financial losses.

Whitlock concurs, expressing disbelief that we are not collaborating towards finding a solution.

In the meantime, Dinsdale and other beachcombers have no intention of halting their searches. However, if their actions solely consisted of cleaning up, the outcome may be different. Dinsdale explains, “That would be disheartening because it would be a never-ending task.”

According to Dinsdale, collecting evidence on the extent of nurdle pollution provides conservation groups with greater influence to advocate for reform. “We may be relatively insignificant in the bigger picture, but we are actively contributing rather than just responding to the issue.”

Source: theguardian.com