Update on plastic nurdles incident along Kwazulu Natal Coastline

27 October 2017


The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) welcomes the issuing of a directive by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) to the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), to take full responsibility for a clean-up operation of plastic nurdles along the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) coastline.

This development follows the loss of cargo into the ocean within the Durban Harbour from the vessel MSC SUSANNA, subsequently leading to the spillage of polyethylene cargo, or plastic nurdles, in the Port of Durban, following a devastating thunderstorm on 10 October 2017.

It has subsequently been established that two 40 foot containers fell into the port waters during the storm on 10 October.  Each container contained 990 bags of low and high density polyethylene packed in 25kg bags. The total tonnage lost is estimated to be 49 tons. Yesterday Transnet announced that the missing containers that were reported to have fallen overboard during the aftermath of the storm have been located those at the seabed at the Durban Container Terminal.

Nurdles or plastic pellets are mostly made from synthetic substances, some even derived from petrochemical products that give them high mouldability for manufacture of familiar plastic products. In their raw stage (pre-moulded and packaged) they are not toxic to touch. However, once released into the marine environment they attract harmful substances that end up in the ocean.

The plastic nurdles can have negative impacts on marine protected species in the region, such as seabirds and turtles. This can occur by being ingested and filling the stomach with matter with no food value, and so the animals become malnourished and in time can starve. Plastics can also be carriers of pathogens.  Entanglement would not seem to be likely in this instance, but nurdles could block fishes filtering parts like gills.

During this past week, DEA convened an Authorities Meeting to assess the status of the incident, mitigating actions and decision on a way forward. This is an emergency incident that is being handled in accordance with the Disaster Management Act, and section 30 of the National Environmental Management Act. Several actions were agreed upon, including among others, deployment of the Environmental Affairs’ Working for the Coast teams along the coastline to assist with cleansing of the pellets, issuing a strong call for coastal municipalities to deploy beach cleansing teams, and the issuing of a directive to the vessel and cargo owners to institute clean-up operations. The Department has since liaised with the cargo owner, SABIC which then appointed the commercial service provider, Drizit Environmental, to co-ordinate the recovery of the beached plastic nurdles.

The pollution response company, Drizit Environmental, has reported that the clean-up response in the wake of the incident is progressing well. At present, the areas of immediate focus are Durban’s beaches and the Northern coastline. The operation includes the containment and recovery of floating nurdles in the Port of Durban.

The Working for the Coast teams have been deployed along the coastline and an option of getting additional numbers is being explored looking at the magnitude of the challenge.

The Department again wishes to thank all members of the public and organisations for their active involvement in the response.  Various volunteer and NGO groups have been running with clean ups in the interim for sections of KZN coast.

“The Department is well aware that the incident resulted in widespread local volunteer-based clean-up initiatives across the Kwazulu-Natal province. It is the view of the Department that such initiatives are a demonstration of the high levels of environmental concern and awareness expressed by the coastal communities of Kwazulu-Natal.

The Department therefore would like to commend all persons involved in the response to the incident to date. Members of the public are encouraged to join in and to contribute toward the protection of the coast,” said the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Dr Edna Molewa.

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