Some people call them “high density plastic'” or “pre-production micro-plastic” but individuals in the industry refer to them as nurdles – a silly sounding name for a lentil-sized pellet that is the building block of all-known plastic products.
Your plastic bag from the supermarket? It’s made from nurdles. Your daughter’s dolly with the clip-on earrings and shoes? They are all moulded from nurdles.
Every single day, nurdles are shipped around the world in their billions and billions – just like any other cargo.
But nurdles are not “any other cargo” – a fact the people of South Africa are now learning to their detriment.
A major spill of these translucent pellets in the city of Durban has spread along 2,000 kilometres of coastline, proving virtually impossible to clean up – and the threat posed to marine and birdlife is incalculable, say leading environmentalists.
They may be small in size but their synthetic legacy that could last forever.
Back in October, a freak hurricane bore down on Durban, ripping ships from their moorings and causing chaos in the port.
Propelled by wind power, two vessels belonging to the logistics-giant Mediterranean Shipping Company collided within the port’s confines and containers holding 49 tonnes of nurdles went over the side.
Five days after the storm, local residents noticed that millions of plastic nurdles were washing up on beaches.
People started to call the regional environmental agency to complain but it was already too late – billions of these plastic pieces had already flowed out of the channel which leads to the sea.
Sobantu Tilayi, who is the chief operating officer of South Africa’s Maritime Safety Authority, told us that the consequences of the spill came as a shock.
“We all work under standard operating procedures and we know what do when there is oil or explosives (but) nobody could tell what to do with nurdles. We didn’t even know these things behave like this.”
By behaviour, he means speed of movement. According to figures provided by NGO Wild Oceans, nurdles packed into two containers which fell off the MSC Susanna have now moved as far north as the border with Mozambique and all the way south to Cape Town.
For hundreds of clean-up crews now charged with scrapping them off the coastline, it is the ultimate environmental nightmare.
We watched several hundred people tackle a stretch of coast line north of Durban near a place called Mtunzini and we soon noticed that the sand, pools and marsh lands were saturated with them.
As soon as one person tried to scoop half-a-dozen or so up, they were replaced by another gaggle of slippery, silvery pellets.
The clean-up operation benefits from a highly-capable leader. Captain Nicolas Sloane, who helps run an organisation called Resolve Marine, is the man who righted the Costa Concordia back in 2013 – but this nurdle crisis is a real test.
“We clean up one beach. It looks perfect (then) we have a spring tide, the sand migrates and blow me down, there they are again. It is not easy, and you cannot get despondent. We are recovering product.”
But there is a long, long way to go. Of the 49 tonnes which spilt in the water, only 11 tonnes have been recovered – 23% of the total – and realistically, much of it will never be retrieved.
For environmentalists like Dr Andrew Venter, it is an unmitigated disaster. “We could be cleaning up in two or three years’ time and we still won’t recover all 49 tonnes of that particular load. It’s not going to happen.”
The repercussions for marine and bird life could be disastrous he says with multiple species misjudging toxin absorbing nurdles for food.
“From an environmental perspective, it is worse than an oil spill because (nurdles) won’t break down. They last forever.”
Dr Venter admits he had never heard of nurdles until last October but they pose a problem that he – as well as government officials, shipping executives, their insurers and the South African public at large – will be grappling with for many years to come.