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Study outlines challenges to ongoing clean-up of burnt and unburnt nurdles along Sri Lanka’s coastline

An estimated 70-75 billion pellets of preproduction plastic material, known as nurdles, spilled into the ocean and along the Sri Lankan coastline when a fire broke out on a cargo ship in May, 2021, threatening marine life and posing a complex clean-up challenge. © Asha de Vos

November 29, 2021

Woods Hole, MA — When a fire broke out on the deck of the M/V XPress Pearl cargo ship on May 20, 2021, an estimated 70-75 billion pellets of preproduction plastic material, known as nurdles, spilled into the ocean and along the Sri Lankan coastline. That spill of about 1,500 tons of nurdles, many of which were burnt by the fire, has threatened marine life and poses a complex clean-up challenge.

A new peer-reviewed study characterizes how the fire modified the physical and chemical properties of the nurdles and proposes that these properties affected their distribution along the coast. The study, published today in the journal ACS Environmental Au, also provides guidance for the continuing clean-up and monitoring effort and for any potential future nurdle spills, whether in Sri Lanka or elsewhere.

Among the recommendations are educating and empowering citizen scientists to continue safely reporting nurdle sightings to inform clean-up efforts; accounting for the ship’s onboard cargo to better gauge future threats from the wreck; continuing the urgency for clean-ups while also revising response efforts to account for any variability of spilled nurdles; and encouraging locally led research efforts on nurdle samples.

A handful of nurdles, or preproduction plastic material. © Asha de Vos

“One key impact of this paper is providing actionable and relevant data and recommendations during an ongoing response,” said co-author Chris Reddy, senior scientist in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department.

Reddy said that he and other scientists at WHOI became involved almost immediately with studying the nurdles and their potential impact, and they have worked closely on this issue with scientists in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Reddy added that because the properties of the unburnt and burnt nurdles are different, the spill almost amounts to two separate spills that potentially call for different clean-up strategies.

“Exposure to combustion, heat, and chemicals led to agglomeration, fragmentation, charring, and chemical modification of the plastic creating an unprecedented, complex spill of visually burnt and unburnt nurdles,” according to the study, The M/V X-Press Pearl nurdle spill: Contamination of burnt plastic and unburnt nurdles along Sri Lanka’s beaches. “The burnt nurdles span a continuum of colors, shapes, sizes, and densities with high variability that could impact clean-up efforts, alter transport in the ocean, and potentially affect wildlife,”

The study notes that the fire increased the chemical complexity of the plastics up to three-fold, and that burnt nurdles could “camouflage among natural materials” and could break into even smaller pieces because of their brittleness.

The key messages of the study include the fact that some of the burnt nurdles don’t even look like plastic anymore, and that this should be considered during the clean-up, said co-author Anna Michel, associate scientist in WHOI’s Department of Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering. Michel said that she and other WHOI scientists interested in microplastics science quickly utilized multiple labs–including her own lab, which has been developing instrumentation to study microplastics in the ocean and in freshwater–and worked across disciplines to eke out data about the nurdles.

“Another key message is the importance of having international collaborators who can work together when an incident like this happens, where a lab can pivot and make measurements that could help to inform the response to a spill,” Michel said.

“Building an international collaboration in a time of crisis means that we can work faster to get the answers that are crucial for supporting the recovery efforts. It is also key that the initiative is locally-led: this ensures that we are responding to the needs on the ground,” said paper co-author Asha de Vos, founding executive director of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization. The Oceanswell nurdle tracker provided an opportunity for Sri Lankans across the coastline to participate in science from the safety of their own backyards.

De Vos added, “For me, this is very personal. Sri Lanka is my home, and the ocean is critical to life here and around the world. I want to ensure that I am using my scientific skills to help understand the issues we face and produce science that is useful in the long recovery phase.”

“While there have been massive releases of nurdles from container ships in the past, this event was different,” said co-author Bryan James, a postdoctoral scholar in WHOI’s Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department. Unlike previous nurdle spills, this spill released burnt plastic, which is a type of litter that has only recently been documented in the ocean. The burnt plastic poses uncertainties for response activities, its fate and transport, and its potential impact on wildlife, researchers noted.

Support for this research was provided by the WHOI Postdoctoral Scholar Program, the Weston Howland Jr. Postdoctoral Scholarship, the WHOI Marine Microplastics Catalyst Program, the WHOI Marine Microplastics Innovation Accelerator Program, the Investment in Science Fund,  March Limited, the Seaver Institute, Gerstner Philanthropies, the Wallace Research Foundation, the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation, the Harrison Foundation, the Richard Grand Foundation, and the Hollis and Ermine Lovell Charitable Foundation. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Field work conducted by Oceanswell and Asha de Vos was funded by the Schmidt Marine Technology Partners. The Oceanswell nurdle tracker was made possible by the National Geographic Society.

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About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu

Authors: Asha de Vosa, b, *, Lihini Aluwiharec, Sarah Youngsd, Michelle H. DiBenedettoe, Collin P. Wardf, Anna P. M. Micheld, *, Beckett C. Colsond, g, h, Michael G. Mazzottaf, Anna N. Walshf, h, i, Robert K. Nelsonf, Christopher M. Reddyf, Bryan D. Jamesf

 

Affiliations:

a Oceanswell, Colombo, Sri Lanka

b The Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, Perth, WA, Australia

c Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA

d Department of Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

e Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

f Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

g Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA

h MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science & Engineering, Cambridge and Woods Hole, MA, USA

i Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA

*corresponding author