Do you want plastic with that?

nurdles
Nurdles found on a Sorrento beach

These are nurdles. Tiny beads of plastic that are the basis of plastics manufacture. Nurdles arrive at plastics factories in big sacks, which are then emptied into vats to be melted down into the plastic rubbish-to-be of your choice – bags, toys, disposable spoons and plates, you name it. Every time those sacks are emptied, or a small hole develops in a sack during transport, a few nurdles escape. Just a few tiny plastic beads, so small you could fit around 6 nurdles on your average little fingernail – nothing alarming, nothing to stress about, surely?

These nurdles were found on the beach at Sorrento. Nurdles are found at every beach. Nurdles are found in every ocean. Nurdles, those few, tiny escapees, are everywhere. They wash down the storm water drains when it rains. They flow down our streams and rivers and into our bays and oceans. They wash up on beaches. They have interesting properties – they absorb toxins from the water.

Nurdles rapidly become tiny toxic time bombs, and being small and floating, they look exactly like fish food. Sea birds eat them. Small fish eat them. Big fish eat them. Big fish also eat the small fish, concentrating the toxins up the food chain. Then we eat the big fish. Fish and chips for dinner? Do you want nurdles with that? Because you’re getting them whether you like it or not. With a delightful toxic sauce.

A couple of weeks ago my 10 year old and I were privileged to go out on Polperro  to take part in a plastics survey in Port Phillip bay. We met film maker Michael J Lutman, who is making a film about the plastics in Port Phillip Bay. He has also made a film about a plastics survey in the South Atlantic, called Plasticized.  Go watch it – it’s a shocking account of a trip through the South Atlantic, surveying the plastics all the way through, including the South Atlantic gyre – one of the vast islands of rubbish found in every ocean on the planet.

We also met Neil Blake, Director of Port Phillip Ecocentre and long time champion of Port Phillip Bay and its ecosystem. Neil has a tiny amount of funding to do a survey of the plastics in the bay. For the documentary we did a short trawl through the waters of the bay. The water looked clean. There was no visible rubbish. Yet the trawl found plastic. Perhaps it’s not surprising to find plastic in the waters of Port Phillip Bay – a busy waterway with a big city on its shores. But as you can see in Plasticized, the Movie, plastic is everywhere, infesting the waters of even the most remote “untouched” oceans of the world.

After we had trawled the bay we walked on the beach for a short distance – maybe 100 metres. We picked up just some of the rubbish we saw along the way:

rubbish
Rubbish found on the beach near Sorrento Pier

The haul included plastic straws and spoons, scrunchies, bits of tape, soft drink bottles, plastic signs, bottle tops, hair clips, fishing line and various plastic connectors, rope, and bits of piping, among other things. It’s easy to see how the plastic winds up on the beach. After all, you’re walking on the beach and holding a straw. There’s no bin within reach. What’s one straw in the scheme of things? Oops. It drops and is whipped away by the wind. Oh well. No harm done.

Or it’s the lid of a coffee cup, a plastic stirrer, a McDonalds soft drink cup, or the wrapper off a chocolate frog. It’s the plastic wrap from your sandwich, a bag from your shopping, the lid of your water bottle or a hair clip that falls out.

Each individual bit of plastic is so minor, but they accumulate to form an environmental disaster of staggering proportions – torturing and killing our marine life, from birds to dolphins and whales, drifting out to sea, filling every part of our planet, affecting every bit of our ecosystem. Rubbish in our oceans is the lasting result of our insatiable desire for disposable, breakable, temporary plastic junk. Every time you say no to plastic bags, recycle your plastic bottles, or use a keep cup, you keep a bit of plastic out of the ocean.

And at the root of it all is the omnipresent, ubiquitous nurdle. The nurdle seems to symbolise everything that’s wrong about our attitude to the world. Those tiny bits of plastic, drifting, unregarded, on the wind and the tide.

What’s a nurdle here or there? It’s an environmental disaster, that’s what.

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4 thoughts on “Do you want plastic with that?

  1. Joe

    I notice there are some people (my lot included) who by habit clean up their rubbish as they go even when, say, at a food court or office kitchen or whatnot where there’s someone paid to do it for you.

    Then there are others who it seems never grew out of expecting all the rubbish to magically disappear… I have to wonder if mummy and/or daddy simply never made a Consequence for them until it really is a subconscious ingrained expectation for these folks that if you simply leave your leavings about they’ll get dealt with.

    Not so much “lazy” as simply completely out of mental awareness. And as adults this no-care approach is reinforced constantly since we pay people to clean up our roads parks and offices too.

    (nb: I am not remotely suggesting society shouldn’t pay people to clean our streets parks and food court tables.)

    1. lindamciver

      You raise an interesting point. A friend who lived in Denmark for a while after growing up in Australia made the observation that a more socialist government that looks after people more seems to lead to a society/community that looks after people less.
      Perhaps we need to know that it’s up to us in order to take responsibility!
      But overall I suspect it’s the tragedy of the commons. Everyone wants the wealth we can rip out of the ground, no-one wants to pay the cleanup bill to deal with the consequences.
      “Plasticized, The Movie” makes the point that cleaning up the oceans is a lost cause. The trick is to stop the rubbish getting there. But I don’t know how we do that. To some extent this blog raises awareness among the already-fairly-aware.

  2. It is a disastrous situation many people do not know or want to know about. Plastic waste is a larger problem that global warming, just not as sexy to the media. Plastic waste kills more wildlife now that Global Warming does. The human death toll of plastic waste has not been counted but like 2nd hand smoke is dangerous not only to the smoker, but to the innocent passer by, plastic waste getting into the food chain is real. The human misery toll of having to live amount so much ugly, plastic waste is very high around the world. The chemicals used in plastic manufacturer becoming part of our diet is real. But it is not heavily documented so we prefer to shut our eyes to it.
    See http://www.plasticwastesolutions.com for more on this and some solutions.

    See also http://www.beachpatrol.com.au for an example of people who are volunteering their time to do some thing about this and want to make the world a better place.

    We need to stop irresponsible manufacturing, support Extended Producer Responsibility to make those who make the plastic in the first place partially responsible for its correct disposal. A container deposit scheme is an excellent example of this.

  3. It’s incredible that South Australia introduced a container deposit scheme in 1977 and banned single-use lightweight bags in 2009..yet here in Victoria, we’re still talking about them both.

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