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‘Nurdle’ pollution hits beaches, wildlife

Jul 10th, 2014 | By | Category: IN DEPTH, News, Top Picture

Beach clean across the top

TINY plastic balls are fouling Wellington beaches, and could be harming marine life and poisoning the food chain.

Wellington Sea Shepherd volunteers say they are struggling to clean up the plastic mess, especially nurdles which they are finding in abundance on Evans Bay beach.

Nurdles are plastic balls, typically 5mm in diameter, and are a raw material used in plastics manufacturing.

Dr James Bell, a marine biology lecturer at Victoria University, says overseas studies into micro-plastic pollution show nurdles are a threat to marine life and can impact on their feeding processes.

“They strongly resemble fish eggs, which are a food source for a variety of marine life and it’s concerning to think of the quantities which are being consumed,” Dr Bell said.

Media reports last year said 210,000 tonnes were imported in New Zealand in 2012.

Sam Judd from Sustainable Coastlines says consumption of the plastic balls comes with further risk.

“They act like a sponge in the water, adsorbing contaminants from the environment around them,” says Mr Judd, whose charity organisation cleans beaches and raises coastal awareness.

nurdles hands right side top“One nurdle can be up to 1 million times more toxic than the water around it.”

Alan Berman, a marine conservationist and program coordinator at the Island Bay Marine Education Centre is about to conduct research into the effects of micro plastic pollution locally.

He says at least 80% of sea birds, along with marine mammals, fish, sea turtles and filter feeders are all potential consumers of micro plastics.

“A lot of plastic is clear and resembles the food that these animals would naturally eat.”

Mr Berman says a chain of effects can occur once the contaminated plastics are consumed.

“Once made, plastic absorbs toxic chemicals that end up in the water and then deposits them in the tissues of the organisms that consume them.

“This means they are taken up into the bodies of small organisms and fish, which are then consumed by larger organisms such as marine mammals and people.

“The killer whales that live along the Pacific coast of Canada and the north-western US are now recognised as the most contaminated animals in the world.”

Mr Berman wants to test for the presence and density of micro plastic debris and associated pollutants

The project will be one of the first studies done in New Zealand into micro plastic pollution and Mr Berman hopes to raise awareness about the effects of over consumption of plastic products can have on the environment.

He is seeking support from anyone willing to get involved in the project and also a sponsor to help fund the research.

While the source of the nurdles is unknown, Sea Shepherd volunteer Michael Coleman thinks they are coming from plastic manufacturer’s locally and are being washed down drains Wellington into waterways which filter into the sea.

“People are being careless and instead of picking them up when there’s a spill they are choosing the easier option.”

Wellington City Councillor and environment committee member, Sarah Free wants the source investigated.

“I was shocked when I realised how much plastic was ending up at Evans Bay.

“It may be that the balls are coming from a factory somewhere. It’s definitely something we need to investigate and do more to solve.”

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is is a Whitireia journalism student
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