Coast KZN

09 Jan 2019

Nurdle spill travels to Australia

Allan Troskie (North Coast Courier) Picture: Billions of the tiny plastic pellets were swept into the sea in October 2017.

Researches are using the nurdles to study the rate at which the plastic pellets adsorb chemicals from the ocean.

Twenty five tons of tiny plastic pellets that were released into the sea at Durban two years ago have been collected, but the remaining pellets continue to pollute KwaZulu-Natal beaches and have been found as far away as Australia. Last November the University of Western Australia began calling for volunteers to help clean the beaches of the plastic pellets.

University project leader Harriet Paterson said they had a small team analyzing, among other things, the chemical composition of the nurdles.

“We can use the nurdles to estimate the rate at which nurdles adsorb nasty chemicals from the ocean.

“We can do this because we know the date of the spill.

“All the other nurdles on the beach are of an unknown origin so we do not know how long they have been in the ocean,” said Paterson.

She said they would also see if they could determine the route the nurdles had taken to reach Australia.

In October 2017 a storm hit Durban harbour, washing several containers off a Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) vessel in port.

In two of these containers were nearly 50 tons (more than two billion pellets) of plastic nurdles.

To date, 25,83 tons out of 49 tons of the tiny plastic pellets have been collected off KZN’s beaches, according to CoastKZN who have accepted the role of data gathering and collection hub for information relating to the nurdle spill along our coast.

The help of volunteers all along the coast has been invaluable to the clean-up effort.

Of course, these represent only those pellets which washed ashore again. CoastKZN has been keeping track of the nurdles along the Southern African shore and has reports of them as far north as Tofu in Mozambique and south as far as Danger Point in the Western Cape.

In effect, this means nurdles have contaminated the entire south-eastern coast of Africa.

What is a nurdle?
A nurdle is a very small plastic pellet which serves as raw material in the manufacture of plastic products. In the raw stage (pre-moulded and packaged) they are not toxic to touch, however, once released into the marine environment they attract and bind with harmful substances such as land-based pesticides, herbicides, other organic pollutants as well as heavy metals that end up in the ocean.

At this stage they are very harmful to life and should not be ingested.

Nurdles never disappear or disintegrate. They break down into smaller pieces and are harmful to animals which mistake them for food items. Not only are they toxic, but they cannot be digested, causing digestive blockages, starvation and death.

Of course, while the only appropriate response to a disaster of this magnitude is shock – there is still reason to take heart.


Ntombifikile Cibane, Lizeka Nozibhija, Vuyelwa Maciko, Vennancia Qulu and Bukiwe Nha-Nha (back) from DRIZIT Environmental sifting for nurdles on one of Sheffield’s beaches, March 2018.

The Dolphin Coast has played a big role in cleaning up the spill, with CoastKZN listing Umdloti and Sheffield Beach as two of the three most nurdle conscious areas (along with Durban) and admitting that without public participation in both the cleanup and reported sightings, it is highly unlikely that 53 percent of the spill would already have been gathered in.

To date, the department of environmental affairs has employed 186 people in the cleanup effort – however the lion’s share of the cleanup so far has been undertaken by Drizit Environmental. According to CoastKZN’s statistics, of the 49 tons spilled into the ocean, the department has cleaned up 1,42%, the KZN Waste Network about 0,42% and Drizit Environmental a mammoth 50,88%.

South African Maritime Safety Authority principal officer, Captain Hopewell Mkhize told the Courier that any nurdles seen in a bathing area would not make the area unsafe for bathing and beach-related activities.

While public participation is encouraged, scientists at CoastKZN urge people not to dispose of nurdles in the rubbish as they want to be able to keep track of just how much has been collected.

CoastKZN has a fantastic site where you can learn not only how to report nurdle sightings, but the best ways to collect them and where to drop them off.

Visit for all this information.

Drop off points on the North Coast can be found at: Zinkwazi Ski Boat Club, Umhlali Recycling Centre (next to BP garage), Salt Rock Caravan Park, Hops Restaurant, Ballito Ski Boat Club, Westbrook Lifeguards, Beach Bums, Seabelle Restaurant in La Mercy, La Mercy Beach Hotel, La Mercy Lagoon Cafe, Umdloti Lifesavers hut and the Spud Fish and Chips Restaurant in Umdloti.