However, even with 38 of 49 metric tons of the plastic pellets recovered, monitoring will continue for four more years.SAMSA
Pretoria: 29 March 2021
With about 38 metric tons of the approximately 49 MT of nurdles that accidentally fell off a cargo ship and into seawaters off the coast of Durban in 2017 now recovered, the three years clean-up operation of approximately 290 kilometres of coastline since launched has officially been brought to an end, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has announced.
According to SAMSA, the decision to end the three year clean-up operation – taken in consultation with various other interested and involved parties including the Department of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry (DEFF) KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA), Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) – was made on the basis that the residue of nurdles lately observed through monitoring of affected areas, had become negligible and therefore no longer justified continued recovery.
In addition, crucially, the high- and low-density polyethylene pellets were not only found to be non-hazardous, but it had also been established that they had not caused any known or reported damage or harm either to the ecology of the heavily affected area nor to living mammals both inland and at sea.
However, according to SAMSA, monitoring of the South African coastline along the KwaZulu-Natal province will continue for four more years and in the event of a resurfacing of enough quantities of the plastic nurdles, if necessary, another recovery operation will be instituted.
The formal official cessation of the clean-up operation, according to SAMSA – the coordinator of the operation – comes after more than 160 bags of the nurdles, measuring some 38.8MT in weight, were successfully recovered over the three-year period since the accidental spillage occurred in the second half of 2017.
The spillage into sea of the millions of small nurdles in 25-kilogram bags drew domestic and global attention after they were ripped off their transportation containers into the Durban harbour during a massive wind that wreaked havoc on ships in the Durban harbour on 10 October 2017.
Two of the lost containers, off the MSC Susana vessel, were loaded with the nurdles cargo. The nurdles involved, regarded as non-biodegradable, were described as small plastic pellets of about five (5) millimetres in diameter, with a flotation density of 0.91-0.97 grams per cubic centimetre (g/cmᵌ).
Shortly after the incident, SAMSA together with the DEFF, the KwaZulu-Natal Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA), Transnet, environmental groups including Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, vessel owners, MSC, London based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Ltd (ITOPF), salvage and emergency group, Resolve Marine; as well as various other parties, launched an extensive and intensive recovery project of the plastic nurdles all along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, but with specific focus on a 290km area of the coast where the pellets found concentration.
The aim of the clean-up operation according to SAMSA, was three-fold (a) to reduce impact on human life, (b) to recover the pellets as quickly as possible (c) and to minimize impact on the environment.
The clean-up operation reliant partly on a scientific modelling to hopefully accurately predict movement of the pellets, would therefore essentially also involve an inspection of almost the entire South African oceans coastline, from Richards Bay through to the Western Cape.
According to SAMSA, the coastline inspection found evidence of nurdles presence in some of the areas, particularly in the Western Cape and some areas of the Eastern Cape. However, the nurdles found here were established to have come mainly from industrial waste discharges rather that from the Durban port ship incident in question. In other areas such as Port St Johns on the Wild Coast, concentrations were very low.
SAMSA says that with concerns also related to ocean currents movements along the Indian Ocean, the pellets might end up polluting the seas along other countries as far as Australia, enquiries were made. But these elicited no clear evidence of such widespread dispersion or leakage over the last three years.
Instead, after both aerial and land inspections, the greatest concentration of the nurdles deposition was found to have occurred largely just north of the Durban port city in an area of coastal high dune concentrations, inshore reefs and beaches as well as river mouths incorporating Addington, Port Dunford, Dokodweni, the Tugela River through to uMhlathuze towards Richards Bay.
SAMSA said final reports of monitoring and recovery by some of its participating partners, the DEFF, the KZZ EDTEA and ITOPF late last year, indicated that “the affected areas have received relatively low levels of recharge of SABIC plastic nurdles and, applying the ‘law of diminishing returns’, all recovery operations on all affected areas to be ceased.”
SAMSA and its partners in the operation would continue to “keep an ear and eye on the ground” for any possibility of nurdles resurfacing, and where deemed necessary, action will be taken to recover them.
Asked what has been done with the recovered 38,8MT of nurdles; SAMSA said these were recycled and used to make park benches dedicated to the late Ms Caroline Reid formerly a secretary of KwaZulu-Natal’s Marine Waste Network. Ms Reid reportedly passed away in July 2018 after being involved a vehicle accident in Durban. She was 41 years old at the time.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that following to the Durban port nurdles spillage incident, the South African government through the Department of Transport, SAMSA and DEFF is being urged by shipping transport industry players to support a call on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to review shipping containers stowage such as that of plastic nurdles, and where possible, require that such cargo be relocated to the underdeck of cargo spaces of ships.
Parties to the call in South Africa include Resolve Marine whose executive, Mr Nicholas Sloane confirmed his company’s approach to the IMO about the matter.
According to Mr Sloane, prevention of loss at sea of material such as nurdles from ship’s cargo due to sea conditions and related accidents can be achieved with proper, purposeful stowage aboard vessels. This, he says, is necessary also because generally, seafarers manning cargo vessels are not always aware of contents of containers being transhipped.
“With over 3 000 containers lost in the oceans every so often, nurdles are the worst cargo to be lost.” says Mr Sloane.