Sydney Water Gives KNSWB the Wrap on Nurdles

Sydney Water – who partner with several of our programs and run the commendable Tap™ campaign to reduce single-use plastic bottle consumption – recently took part in a field study tour of Sydney Harbour, investigating plastic contamination in the harbour, and shared their experience with us.

Two of their Education Officers, Liz Minor and Angela Dunnett, joined  other environmental educators and teachers, reps from the Two Hands Project, and scientists from Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) on a cruise on the Danish tall ship the Yukon to for some hands-on education about pollution impacts in the harbour.

Two ANSTO scientists, Henk Heijnic and Stephanie McCready, had some good and bad news to present following their studies in pollution impacts through sediment core samples and radiometric measurements in the harbour. They led the discussion which revealed:

The positive:

Sediments are showing a drop in lead contaminants as a result of introducing lead free petrol: heartening evidence of improvements flowing on from effective environmental legislation.

The negative:

A new issue has arisen with the increase in plastic microbeads in facial cleansers and cleaning products. Microbeads are incredibly difficult to remove from our water system and threaten marine ecosystems and the food web when they end up in the environment.

Silke Stuckenbrock, co-founder of the Two Hands Project which is on a mission to educate the public about plastic pollution, highlighted another problem that’s growing; ‘nurdles’ that are infecting our water systems. Nurdles are pellets of pre-production plastic resin, or ‘raw’ plastic before it is made into anything. Sampling on the day collected several nurdles from the harbour. This was immediate evidence of their abundance in our oceans.

Nurdles readily absorb toxic pollutants such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and Bisphenol A (BPA) from the seawater. The chemicals that accumulate on the pellets can reach concentrations up to a million times the level of the surrounding seawater.

It’s thought that nurdles enter the environment through spills in the manufacturing process and distribution system. The pellets are lightweight and float so can easily end up down stormwater drains and into creeks, rivers and oceans.

Plastics with the accumulated toxins are consumed by marine animals and sea birds. According to Plastic Free Seas, a Hong Kong based charity, sea birds such as Australian shearwaters that feed exclusively in Antarctic waters have a 100% contamination rate with these plastic pellets. This is contributed to by other plastic litter which breaks up into small pieces in the ocean and end up at the wrong end of the food chain.

Sydney Water’s Tips: What you Can Do

  • Stop using cleaning products with microbeads. Read the label and avoid products with the ingredients Polyethylene or Acrylate cross polymer.
  • Happily, Unilever announced they would phase out microbeads in all their products by 2015. Consumer pressure works – write to brands that aren’t doing the right thing and tell them you will be voting with your dollar for healthier oceans.
  • Reduce demand for plastic – refuse single-use plastic like shopping bags, disposable cutlery, takeaway containers, straws and other superfluous plastic, and limit your use of other plastics, e.g. buy food with less packaging.
  • Make sure ALL the plastic that you do use ends up in the bin, and recycle everything you can.
  • Spread the word and let others know about the problems our marine ecosystems face, and how their actions can help.
  • Take the Pledge with Keep NSW Beautiful, promise to keep our beaches beautiful by not littering! Pledge online at www.takethepledge.com.au.

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