Protecting the Pearl’s Coastline
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Sri Lanka has been facing a year of environmental crisis after crisis; from rampant deforestation, poaching of wildlife, leopards caught in traps, and now to what may be the worst marine ecological disaster in the history of this country – the X-press Pearl fire.
If you’ve been following what’s been going on either through news or social media, you would be aware of the harm it has been causing the country, its people and of course, the entire marine ecosystem. Although officials are working at their maximum to minimise the harm, we can all agree that a massive blow has already been dealt, and the impact of the disaster is far reaching and will be experienced for decades.
Tiny plastic pearls
One of the reasons why the ecological impact of the X-press Pearl disaster will prevail for such a long duration is because of the tonnes of plastic nurdles that were released into the sea. Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets which are used to create all the plastic materials you find around you; from plastic bottles to the various automobile parts such as the switches on your dashboard and air conditioner vents. Accidental spills are the main reason why these find their way into the environment, usually during transit.
Because they float on water, plastic nurdles are at the mercy of the wind and waves. While they don’t sink to the ocean bed, this means it is extremely difficult to control their spread and difficult to clean up once they’ve washed ashore on our beaches. Recent evidence of this is the fact that plastic nurdles are now being found washed ashore in the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Arugambay.
An international issue
Across the globe, volunteers and organisations continue to conduct cleanups in an attempt to alleviate the pollution due to plastic nurdles, with instances such as the worldwide Great Global Nurdle Hunt being a great indicator of how widespread the ecological impact of plastic nurdles are. Some have even been found on the coast of Antarctica.
If it’s so hard to clean up, it might be tempting to just manually clean up the better part of the nurdles and leave whatever is left to their devices. Unfortunately, in reality, doing so with these plastic nurdles would still result in a massive ecological impact all the way up the food chain. The first issue would be related to microplastics. Because of their small size, plastic nurdles are considered as microplastics. Over time, these pellets will break apart into smaller particles of plastics. Although now undetected to the human eye, these particles remain in the environment and could take hundreds of thousands of years to degrade.
Needless to say, these plastic particles may build up within the bodies of ocean creatures, and be passed up through the food chain through a process called bioaccumulation. In the simplest of explanations, imagine a plastic nurdle being mistaken for food by a small ocean creature, such as plankton. Microscopic particles of these plastics can enter their bloodstream and lodge in their tissues.
If a predator that’s higher up on the food chain consumes the creature then all those plastics accumulate in its body, and passes all its builtup plastics higher up the food chain, until the creatures with accumulated plastics all the way from the bottom of the food chain reach our fishermen and land on our plates. There’s also the concern over these nurdles absorbing various toxins in the environment before finding their way into the stomachs of sea creatures, which increases the concern over toxic substances being carried up the food chain.
Back in Sri Lanka
After the X-press Pearl disaster, the sheer volume of plastic nurdles that found their way into the ocean became a major cause for concern. We reached out to General Manager of the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara in order to learn more about the ecological disaster that Sri Lanka is experiencing at the moment. “It is definitely important that we clean up all the nurdles and the already-burnt plastics left as a result of the X-Press Pearl,” Dr. Terney explained.
“We collected tonnes of plastics through a massive operation, coordinating with the Army, Air Force, Navy, Police, and Coast Guard in bringing it to action.We were able to collect the layers of nurdles that washed ashore and piled up on the beach, which were up to three to four feet high. H o w e v e r , now we h a v e to clear out the nurdles that were embedded in the sand.” Dr. Terney explained to us that during their cleanup, a portion of the nurdles were found already buried in the sandy beach. “Now, the challenge is to separate the sand from the nurdles, which is still ongoing,” he said. “Although the sheer volume of nurdles found is not as massive, it requires a lot of manpower to operate.”
Help is there
Dr. Terney informed Ceylon Today that many civil organisations and groups have volunteered in the cleanup process, which is a reflection of the massive public attention there has been given regarding this ecological and potential economic disaster. One such group is the youth-based volunteer organisation known as The Pearl Protectors, which started in 2018 and has continued to be a massive influence in advocacy among various communities. The organisation has regularly conducted beach cleanups and advocacy campaigns, even before the X-press Pearl incident and have been actively creating awareness about the incident through their social media platforms.
As a response to the incident, The Pearl Protectors are preparing for a massive campaign, with the objective of removing as many nurdles as possible from the shorelines of Sri Lanka through their ongoing campaign ‘Nurdle Free Lanka.’ According to their description, The Pearl Protectors, coordinating with mandated agencies, partners, patrons, and volunteer organisations intend to target coastlines that have experienced the brunt of the pollution in an effort to sieve out the remaining nurdles and assist the ongoing cleanup operation of the Government. We reached out to Muditha Katuwawala from The Pearl Protectors, who is a part of the organising process.
Nurdle Free Lanka
“What we are going to do is a three-month-long campaign,” he said. “We don’t know if we will need to extend it, but at the moment, the target is three months.” We were informed that Nurdle Free Lanka aims to operate in three aspects. First, by placing various tools needed to separate the nurdles from sand along the beaches of Sri Lanka.
Anyone would be able to show up, take a couple of hours to participate, and leave the tools for the next group to utilise. Second, there will be an awareness campaign conducted to spread knowledge about the pollution caused by nurdles among communities. Third, is the deployment of volunteers to conduct beach cleanups in the areas that are heavily-hit.
This way, all participants can participate and supply some of the manpower needed to sieve out the nurdles embedded in the sand. The equipment needed for this process will be threefold; trommel sieves, hanging sieves, and handheld sieves. Muditha did inform of a possible collaboration with Vega who are already in the process of developing equipment to make the cleanups more efficient and effective. The cleanup operation by the volunteer group is planned to begin with the launch of a pilot project at two locations, the Mount Lavinia and Wellawatte shorelines, after which, the operation will move on to various locations along the coastline that require attention.
Although most of the operation will be limited to the Western Province, we were told that there were plans to expand towards the Southern Province, and may be even further. “Of course, this is tentative,” Mudtiha shared. “Things might change depending on the situation.” An important cause “Last year we saw a massive amount of plastic gushing into the Mount Lavinia beach,” Muditha continued. “This is not like that. In several cleanups, we were able to make a considerable difference.
Things are different with these plastic pellets because of their light nature and because they move depending on the ocean currents. “There was a similar instance that happened in Hong Kong when multiple containers full of nurdles fell to the ocean after a typhoon in 2012. They used so many volunteers for the cleanup but they still weren’t able to clean everything up.
“We wanted to use all our resources, tools and volunteers willing to join us in order to deal with this issue properly. It’s an ambitious project and there are a lot of things we needed to learn to make this happen. The good thing is we are networking with other organisations around the world who have dealt with such issues, so we are gaining input from them as well to apply the best practices required to do an effective job.”
We learnt that there is also a massive amount of support from the people wanting to take part in the cleanup process. However, we learnt that the funding needed to make the project happen has been a major issue for The Pearl Protectors in making their effort a success. “We have already built the prototypes and are working on developing them to be more effective,” he said. “We have the designs and the prototypes but we really need the funding to scale it all up.”
Working with MEPA
“We’re working with the experts from MEPA who were very supportive in what we are planning to do and gave a lot of helpful instruction and information to make this project a success as well,” Muditha explained. He informed us that all the pellets collected will be handed over to MEPA and will be dealt with by the authorities.
“These plastic nurdles have been classified as hazardous waste by the Central Environmental Authority, and therefore need to be dealt with carefully,” Dr. Terney shared. “Not only that extra caution must be taken in order to prevent the spread of the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic.” Muditha assures that the organisers of Nurdle Free Lanka will be taking every precaution possible to ensure the safety of those who do participate. “We are only in the organising phase currently,” he shared. “The final dates will be announced once everything is set up and it is safe to begin the project. We are working with the Police, Ministry of Health, and other relevant authorities to ensure the safety of everyone participating and that everything is done with proper permission. Needless to say, COVID-19 safety regulations will be strictly upheld.”
“We want to start small and slowly build up on it,” he continued. “We realise that this is an ambitious project and we are grateful for all the support we are getting. However, we are in need of funding to scale up this project to the level we envisioned it to be. We don’t know a number, but we do know there is a massive volume of nurdles on our beaches and we want to remove as many of them from the environment as possible. It is significant, with time they will be detrimental, so we have to do our best to make our coastline nurdle-free once again and bring as close as possible to what it was like before.”