Photo courtesy of The Pearl Protectors

Over a month after a fire broke out onboard the MV X-Press Pearl that brought about the worst ecological disaster, Sri Lanka is still far from recovery. The inferno of the chemical-laden cargo ship that was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles northwest of Colombo turned our picturesque beaches that were once teeming with life into pellet-filled wastelands. The ship carried about 1,486 containers, with 81 one them containing dangerous goods. According to the cargo manifest, other containers contained plastics/rubber (439 containers), mineral products (110 containers), chemicals (83 containers), corrosive substances (48 containers) and other goods. Some of the most concerning chemicals included sodium methylate, caustic soda, methanol, nitric acid and limestone.

The predicted impacts on the marine environment were clear to see as lifeless marine animals began washing up on several beaches across the island. According to the information provided by the Attorney General’s Department to the Colombo Magistrate Court, deaths of 176 sea turtles, 20 dolphins and 4 whales have been recorded thus far. This was devastating as Sri Lankan waters are well known for being abundant with marine wildlife and our coastlines are graced by five out of the seven species of sea turtles, namely, Green turtle, Loggerhead, Olive Ridley, Hawksbill and even the largest turtles on earth, Leatherbacks who are all legally protected under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance and the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act. The survival of these ancient mariners who have navigated the ocean for more than 100 million years is threatened as it is due to anthropogenic activities such as poaching, plastic pollution and ghost nets that have led to them being classified as endangered and critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Although necropsy results are yet to come through, statements made by the relevant ministries and expert committees indicates that the deaths are indeed linked to the pollution caused by the ship that now sits on the seabed.

The problem of plastic pellets

Among all the chemicals and debris that fell into our waters, what drew the most attention was the billions of Linear Low-Density Polyethylene (LLDPE) and Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) pellets that coated the beaches. Being lightweight and buoyant, the pellets have inundated the western and southern coasts of Sri Lanka. In due course, a regional problem of nurdles is bound to happen as ocean currents and winds speeds will continue the disperse.

Plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, are the building blocks of plastic items. What makes them most problematic is the size itself as they are introduced to the environment as microplastics (plastics that are generally 5mm or less in size) and go on to pollute even before they serve their purpose as plastic products. Being lentil-sized, they are extremely hard to clean or spot as they get buried beneath the sand.

When plastic pellets get spilt in the ocean, they absorb pollutants that have moved into our seas through land runoff, such as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), flame retardants, heavy metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Even though plastic is popular for its versatility, what is not so popular are the ingredients added in the manufacturing process that makes plastic so versatile and colourful. Such ingredients consist of fossil fuels contaminants and additives – dyes, bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and plasticisers.

When marine animals consume these nurdles by mistaking them for food like fish eggs, the toxic chemicals inside can leach out and bioaccumulate or build up in their cells and tissues. The ingestion of nurdles alone could block their digestive tracts, leading to starvation and death. While more than 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year by macro-plastic ingestion or entanglement, even particles as small as 5mm could push them further to the brink of extinction as a result of biomagnification – when toxins are passed from one trophic level to the next within the food chain.

The omnipresence of toxic nurdles and other microplastics that kill marine species is a canary in the coalmine, reminding us of the need to stop further contributing to the plight. Humans too are no longer immune to the atrocities of plastics as they make their way right back to the plates of those who consume seafood, validating the classic scenario of what goes around comes around”. Although we are yet to know the exact human health implications of plastic ingestion, studies have shown the presence of microplastics in human organs and some of the chemicals released from plastics have the potential to cause birth defects, reproductive disorders, cancer, heart disease, respiratory tract symptoms, and vision and hearing impairments.

The way forward

Cleaning up nurdles is an uphill task and unless nurdles are physically removed they will become part of the estimated 51 trillion microplastics that are littering the ocean. The 150-tonne pellet spill that took place in Hong Kong back in 2012 required the mobilization of about 7,000 volunteers to restore the beaches.

Although many expressed their interest in volunteering to help clean our beaches, this was not possible due to the nationwide lockdown that was in effect to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections. The public was also rightfully advised to keep away from the contaminated coastal areas. During this time, The Pearl Protectors worked on creating three tools to effectively remove the nurdles from the beaches: a nurdle trommel, a hanging sieve and a handheld sieve. As pandemic restrictions are currently being eased we would like to invite all passionate volunteers to join the campaign towards nurdle-free beaches. All clean up events and volunteer mobilizations will comply with the COVID-19 restrictions and the guidelines provided by the relevant government authorities such as wearing the necessary protective gear during waste collections.

Beyond clean up efforts, it is vital for Sri Lanka to consider bringing about legislation to address pellet spills as the country remains vulnerable to marine pollution due to the busy international shipping lane. While the importance of emergency response mechanisms and stronger contingency plans cannot be overstated, action is also required in preventing potential calamities since the damage to the marine environment is irreversible and no amount of dollars could compensate for the loss of endangered marine wildlife.

Although the onus of eliminating nurdle spills cannot be put on the consumer, ultimately the power lies with the consumer to create an ocean-minded shift in demand. Nurdles exist and are being transported around the world, causing spills from the onset, to be moulded into plastic items that will once again turn into secondary microplastics when disposed of. Eschewing at least the single-use plastic products that are made from plastic pellets, choosing natural alternatives and engaging in conversation about the problem of plastic at all ages is vital to effectively advocate for nurdle-free waters.

Maleesha Gunawardana, Advocacy Coordinator of The Pearl Protectors and can be contacted via [email protected]