plastic nurdles pollution

Nurdlemania: Behind the climate crisis lurks the plastics crisis. Be ready.

A container ship accident off the Sri Lankan coast is a stark reminder of the "other" planetary problem.

I was with some colleagues walking on a beach on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica in 1986, just north of the crumbling town of Limón and south of a large nesting area for green sea turtles.


What should have been a pristine beach was covered with small, translucent nuggets that we first thought were eggs. Eggs from turtles? Fish?

It turns out they weren't turtles, but nurdles – essentially baby plastic, a raw material to be converted into all manner of polyethylene products. Decades later, the world has barely begun to awaken to such plastics dumped, flushed, and discarded worldwide.

Last month what may be plastic's Exxon Valdez occurred off Sri Lanka's east coast. According to reports from ABC Australia and others, the Singapore-flagged container ship MV Express Pearl caught fire. Its crew of 25 abandoned ship, and at least eight of its 1,500 containers pitched overboard. One included literally millions of nurdles, many of which washed ashore. An estimate said there were 78 metric tons (86 U.S. tons) of nurdles on board, but it's not clear that every last nurdle spilled.

Sri Lankan environmental officials told Australian ABC that some spots at the Negombo beach resort were two feet deep in nurdles, and portions of the beach that had been de-nurdled were covered again with the next incoming tide.

The non-degradable, virtually indestructible nurdles thwart mostly subsistence Sri Lankan fishermen and threaten ecologically vital mangrove swamps—and they will, for all intents and purposes, forever.

From scientific whimsy to ecological menace

plastic pollution water

A rubber duck spill in the Chena River in 2011. (Credit: Jason Ahrns/flickr)

Thirty or so years ago, marine garbage spills made occasional headlines—not as an ecological menace, but as episodes of scientific whimsy.

In the late 1980's marine scientists from the then-Soviet Union reported recovering Caribbean cruise ship trash that had hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream to the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya.

In May of 1990, the South Korean ship Hansu Carrier lost 21 containers in heavy mid-Pacific seas. Five of those containers held 80,000 pairs of Nike running shoes. Six months later, those shoes started beaching themselves from British Columbia to Oregon – yielding some valuable info on North Pacific eddies and currents.

Two years later, 29,000 kids' bathtub toys – mostly rubber ducks – swam free from yet another cargo ship while scientists made more scribbles. I couldn't help thinking of these occasional ocean-plastic headlines as diversions, as one-offs.

I could not have been more wrong.

Recycling isn't going to fix it

plastic recycling

Plastic recycling in India. (Credit: Reality Group/flickr)

Today, plastic is known to be filling the guts of whales, seabirds, turtles, and more. It's fouling our freshwater lakes and streams. It's indestructible, but can reach our soils, our lungs, and our bloodstreams as microplastics.

And the plastic is never going away. The world produced 348 million tons of plastic in 2019 – part of a steady increase since the 1.5 tons we made in 1950.

Half of that 348 million is single-use: bags, packaging, and other throwaways.

We convinced ourselves that plastics recycling would blunt the impact. How's that going?

Historically, we've recycled about 10 percent. That's expected to go down, as the Asian and African nations that led in receiving plastics for recycling are getting out of the business, starting with China three years ago.

So, let's get this climate thing rassled to the ground so we can start in on plastics. Time's a-wastin'.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: @CTF_PHOTO/flickr

Coal-fired power plant in New Jersey to be imploded for clean power

A former coal-fired power plant in New Jersey will be imploded Friday, and its owners are expected to announce plans for a new clean energy venture on the site.

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Congressional Democrats: Not a chance of reopening climate law

The president has been clear about his support for establishing a U.S. manufacturing base for electric vehicles.

EU’s new climate change plan will cause biodiversity loss and deforestation: Analysis

A new climate change plan in the European Union, which has been lauded for its ambitious targets and aggressive action on emissions, will sacrifice carbon-storing trees, threaten biodiversity and outsource deforestation, according to a new paper.

Keep reading...Show less

Is your favorite plant-based milk good for the planet? Here's how they compare

Oat, soy, hemp, and more: If you’re looking to ditch dairy, the options can be overwhelming. Here’s what you need to know about each milk's environmental effects.

Evidence grows of forced labour and slavery in production of solar panels, wind turbines

A ‘certificate of origin’ scheme could counter concerns about renewables supply chains, says Clean Energy Council.

Beyond solar: Here's what the clean energy future might look like

Five scenes show how direct air capture, carbon capture, and hydrogen hubs could be integrated into the U.S. economy.

Opposition to CAFOs mounts across the nation

Toxic manure discharges from large livestock operations is major source of water pollution.

From our Newsroom
United Nations climate change

Op-ed: It’s time to re-think the United Nations’ COP climate negotiations

Instead of focusing on negotiations, let the main event be information sharing, financing and partnerships that produce faster technological change.

population environmental

Op-ed: What the media gets wrong about the new world population numbers

The last time that we lived within the productivity limits of our planet was about 50 years ago — that is a problem.

katharine hayhoe

Peter Dykstra: Journalists I’m thankful for

My third annual list of the over-achieving and under-thanked.

sperm count decline shanna swan

A new analysis shows a “crisis” of male reproductive health

Global average sperm count is declining at a quicker pace than previously known, chemical exposure is a suspected culprit.

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

"Pregnant women, and men planning to conceive a pregnancy, have a responsibility to protect the reproductive health of the offspring they are creating."

sperm count decline

Frequently asked questions on the new sperm count decline study

Sperm counts are declining everywhere — the implications are huge.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.