Why plastic pellets called ‘nurdles’ are threatening miles of Sri Lanka’s coastline
Posted on June 1st, 2021

By Miriam Berger Courtesy The Wahington Post

A crab roams a Sri Lanka beach polluted with nurdle pellets that washed ashore from burning ship MV X-Press Pearl. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)June 1, 2021 at 4:37 p.m. GMT+1

Tons of potentially toxic debris is threatening miles of coastlines and seas around western Sri Lanka after a fire on a ship led to the leak of nitric acid and nurdles — the small, lentil-sized pellets that are melted into all kinds of plastic products.

Sri Lankan authorities are racing to clear tons of nurdles blanketing the South Asian country’s usually pristine beaches and threatening fishing industries and wildlife tens of miles away. There are additional fears that the nurdles themselves could be contaminated with chemicals from the ship.

Here’s what to know about nurdles, the granules at the heart of one of Sri Lanka’s worst environmental crises.

A burning ship covered beautiful beaches in plastic ‘snow.’ Now Sri Lanka faces an environmental disaster.


  • What are nurdles?
  • How do they impact the environment?
  • How can they be cleaned up?

What are nurdles?

Nurdles are the raw materials melted down to produce plastics. Each kind of plastic is composed of nurdles of different compositions and colors. When plastics are recycled, they can be turned back into nurdles and the cycle is repeated. Nurdles are often shipped all over the world in large sacks to factories, where they are turned into various plastic products.

How do they impact the environment?

Nurdles are the backbone of so much packaging we use — and of some serious health and environmental challenges.

Due to improper storage or transfer, nurdles frequently leach into bodies of water, where fish and other marine animals can mistake the pellets for food. Ingesting the nurdles, which can also absorb other chemicals, could be deadly for animals and pose a serious danger for the wider ecosystem if they become caught in food chains.

It’s an environmental disaster,” Sri Lankan marine biologist Asha de Vos told The Washington Post. She said the plastic pellets will be in our beaches for a long time to come.”

Fish in Sri Lanka are a key source of protein, and there are now major fears over the long-term health of the fishing industry. The pellets could also increase the temperature of the sand, which could in turn impact the gender makeup of turtles who lay their eggs there, de Vos said.

Authorities have warned people not to touch the nurdles as it is unclear how toxic they are.

How can they be cleaned up?

Massive efforts are underway to clear Sri Lanka’s beaches coated in nurdles that have washed up to shore. There were an estimated 78 metric tons of nurdles aboard the MV X-Press Pearl, Mongabay News reported.

It was nuts,” de Vos said. It was basically [plastic] snow on our beaches, these tiny white pellets, and piles of them.”

Authorities have already banned fishing in the area and deployed the Sri Lankan military, wearing protective gear, to remove debris from the sand and sea. Efforts by Sri Lankans to help, however, have been hampered by covid-19 restrictions on movement.

It took 7,000 volunteers to clean up a nurdles spill of a similar magnitude in Hong Kong in 2012, according to Mongabay, though in that incident there were no fears of chemical contamination.

Environmentalists have called for changes to how nurdles are stored, as they are frequently kept in sacks that can easily tear.

Our oceans are covered in microplastics, but nobody really thinks about it,” de Vos said. I hope this drives home that we are all part of this problem.”

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