Environment Canterbury carrying out site checks at plastic manufacturers to ensure 'nurdles' don't escape

  • 31/03/2024

Story by Kate Oliver

Environment Canterbury (ECan) is waging war against 'nurdles'. 

They are tiny pellets used to make most plastic products, and they slip through storm drains and pose a threat to our waterways and the wildlife that call them home. 

So, ECan is carrying out site checks at plastics manufacturers across the region to ensure the nurdles don't escape. 

There's a hidden risk inside the prey of predators like coastal birds. 

"They are nurdles, they're plastic pre-production pellets," ECan's Carys Manulli de Barletta explained. 

 They may sound harmless, but 'nurdles' are highly toxic.  

"Nurdles bioaccumulate, so fish will eat them and they will accumulate in their stomachs and eventually kill them," she said. 

Or they themselves are eaten, and ingested by other creatures. 

It's a worldwide problem that's also an issue here. 

"I was concerned at how many nurdles I found when I first started collecting nurdles, but unfortunately, I wasn't really surprised," lead researcher Emma Hunter said. 

Once they are in the environment, they are very difficult to remove. 

An extreme example: Bay of Plenty's Rena disaster, where 14 years on, nurdles are still washing up on the beach.  

ECan says prevention is key.

"Environment Canterbury have identified plastic businesses around the Christchurch zone, and conducted site visits to improve on-site management of plastic nurdles," Manulli de Barletta said. 

It can take millions of the lentil-sized pellets to make a single plastic product - from Tupperware containers to pipes. 

With over 300 identified companies across Aotearoa, it's no surprise some are nurdling their way into our waters.  

There is however, a solution on the horizon. 

"We have an industrial vacuum cleaner for any spills, we have sump guards on our stormwater environment, so if anything did come out of our factory that would be captured in our sumps," Hynds PKS business manager Andrew Howell said.  

Howell believes these systems save them money. 

"When you look at the cost of any landfill that you don't deal with correctly, you actually get a better payback by collecting it without contaminating it and re-putting it back into product," he said. "So, it does self-pay."