Spain Faces 'Tide' of Nurdles

The tiny plastic pellets spilled off of Portugal prompts environmental emergency
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 10, 2024 11:25 AM CST
'Tide' of Plastic Pellets Washes Up in Spain
Volunteers collect plastic pellets from a beach in Nigran, Pontevedra, Spain, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.   (AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar)

Volunteers on the northern coast of Spain are painstakingly picking up what could amount to hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic pellets after millions spilled from a cargo ship, raising concerns of an environmental disaster. Up to six containers carrying tires, tomato sauce, plastic wrap, and some 55,000 pounds of PET plastic pellets fell from the Liberian-flagged Toconao, operated by Danish company Maersk, some 50 miles off the coast of northern Portugal on Dec. 8. Within days, a "white tide" of plastic pellets, each less than 5 millimeters in diameter, began turning up in communities along the western and northern coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, the BBC reports. There are also reports of some turning up along French shores, per the AP.

The affected communities have been struggling to clean up the pellets, known as nurdles and used to make water bottles and other goods. "There are fears the sheer scale of pollution may endanger wildlife [and] the environment and pose a risk to the fishing industry in the area," the BBC reports, noting "any pellets that are not cleaned up will remain in the environment for centuries." The incident recalls a 2017 spill of an estimated 2.25 billion nurdles from a ship in South Africa. Some of those ended up washing ashore in Western Australia, 5,000 miles away. In an October report, the European Commission warned that plastic pellets, known to absorb toxins in the ocean, "do not biodegrade," "accumulate in animals," and "are consequently also consumed by humans in food," per the Guardian.

Local authorities declared an environmental emergency on Tuesday, a day after Spanish state prosecutors launched an investigation. "The contamination of the oceans and ecosystems with plastics is one of the biggest problems faced by humanity, so the spilling of such an important quantity of plastics requires close oversight," said Spain's minister for the environment, Teresa Ribera, per the AP. She noted the investigation would "determine if the transport company and shipping company exercised the proper precautions." There have been claims of delays in notifying government authorities of the spill. In a statement, Maersk said the owners of the charter vessel "have appointed multiple cleanup specialists to support removing the pellets." (More microplastics stories.)

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