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A sunken ship doesn’t mean the cause is lost

The Pearl Protectors on their new campaign Nurdle-Free Lanka and responding proactively to the MV X-Press Pearl disaster

By Naveed Rozais

We are all aware of the MV X-Press Pearl sinking off our coastline. It has been well-covered and documented in the news and on social media – it is essentially one of the largest maritime and ecological disasters that Sri Lanka has had to face in the recent past.

Given that the ship has indeed sunk, it is now how we respond that can make a difference and minimise the impact that all those chemicals, plastics, and other pollutants can have on this country. And this is what volunteer-based marine conservation organisation Pearl Protectors is trying to do with their largest volunteer campaign to date, “Nurdle-Free Lanka”, to fight the issue of nurdles.

A nurdle, despite sounding somewhat charming, is a plastic pellet which is basically the building block of all single-use plastic. Plastic is manufactured as these little pellets, or nurdles, for easy transportation to plastic manufacturers all around the world, who melt these nurdles down to create single-use plastic products, from bottles to bags to cutlery to any other single-use plastic product.

Brunch spoke to Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala for more on “Nurdle-Free Lanka”, what they are trying to achieve, and why it is important to pay attention to nurdles and freeing our environment of them. Muditha explained that over 5 billion nurdles are now in Sri Lankan waters. Some are burnt, some are underwater and still packaged (nurdles come in 25kg packs), but a lot of it has spilled and is now loose in the water, and a good deal of it is starting to wash ashore.

With a massive oil spill as well as staggering amounts of pollution because of the toxic cargo aboard the MV X-Press Pearl, these nurdles are beginning to absorb these pollutants and become toxic themselves. Even without nurdles being toxic, they pose a threat to marine life that mistake them for food and ingest them.

With these nurdles being so toxic, there is a very real risk of these toxins bioaccumulating in marine animals that eat them and passing throughout the food chain, affecting the health of humans as well. Consumption by humans could potentially lead to health hazards that are still being studied.

“This is literally affecting our fisheries industry, as well as our tourism industry because beaches are polluted,” Muditha said, adding that these nurdles are also starting to discolour, which will make them harder to spot and harder to collect. “This is not going to slow down. We’ve already seen headlines of places like Anguana being covered in nurdles. At Pearl Protectors, we’ve been helping the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) to do surveys on nurdles and have found that they come in with the high tide before being swept back out to sea at low tide.”

What Nurdle-Free Lanka is setting out to do is collect all the nurdles that wash up on Sri Lankan shores. While 70-80% of the nurdles from the MV X-Press Pearl are still at sea, Muditha stressed that it is vital that all nurdles that can be collected and removed from the ecosystem be done so immediately.

It is this urgent need that led the Pearl Protectors to develop Nurdle Free Lanka, both as a means of developing technology that can make the process of finding and removing nurdles easier and as a mechanism to facilitate the physical clean up and collection of nurdles on Sri Lanka’s beaches.

The Nurdle-Free Lanka campaign is a three-month campaign that will see the Pearl Protectors spearhead a coordinated effort to mitigate the pollution caused due to the nurdle pollution. The Pearl Protectors, along with mandated agencies, partners, patrons, and volunteer organisations, intend to target coastlines that are most impacted by nurdles and collect the nurdles using trommel technology, large scale sieving, and handheld sieving. Collected nurdles will be handed over to the authorities. The total duration of the clean-up campaign is initially intended to be three months starting 6 July 2021.

The trommel and sieving technology has been designed by the team at the Pearl Protectors, taking cues from technology designed by other countries who have to deal with similar situations. Muditha shared that the first phase of the campaign is underway, with the Pearl Protectors having conducted their first trial run collecting nurdles on 11 July.

“We did a trial with about 40 volunteers. We want to work it up to about 100 volunteers. With 30 people, we collected about 70 kg of nurdles and basically cleaned a stretch of beach,” Muditha said, adding that all collected nurdles are handed over to the MEPA for them to keep track of and use as evidence related to the MV X-Press Pearl disaster.

As part of Nurdle-Free Lanka, the Pearl Protectors is also conducting bi-weekly surveys around the Western Province to identify beaches where nurdles are washing up in order to mobilise volunteer teams to clean up that specific beach, collect data and share it with the public for them to get involved too.

“We want to target three groups through Nurdle-Free Lanka,” Muditha shared, “the first is the armed forces since they’re the ones doing the cleanups right now and can use the sieves we have designed to make their methods more efficient. The second group is coastal communities and people who randomly visit the beach – we want to make it something of a trend for people to volunteer about 10 minutes of their time to clean the beach. The third group is volunteers themselves, those who want to focus on mobilising and making a difference.”

Part of Nurdle-Free Lanka’s objective is developing the equipment needed to find these nurdles and the Pearl Protectors are currently looking to raise funding to the tune of Rs. 3.5 million to develop the equipment needed to effectively locate and manage nurdles. The equipment the Pearl Protectors is developing will be available for volunteer teams to use when cleaning, with a selection of equipment to be donated to the armed forces for them to use as well.

The nurdles released into the Indian Ocean pose a risk not just to Sri Lanka, but all countries, and taking into account ocean currents, even continents far removed from us like Australia and Africa. Muditha shared that there are already reports of nurdles being found in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar. “Variations show that it will be moving, but no one knows the number of nurdles yet. It is important that we clean now because of that. If We take time, the nurdles will disperse, and that will make cleaning harder.”

To get involved with Nurdle-Free Lanka, or to donate, please visit the Pearl Protectors website www.pearlprotectors.org.