The Scourge of the Seven Seas* is an epithet that is still applied to pirates today – although more usually those appearing in video games rather than the very real ones still plying their “trade” in the Gulf of Aden, for example. A more appropriate contender for this title might be … nurdles. Nurdles are the pre-manufacturing form of much of the plastic that is used to produce our goods, specifically those produced by injection moulding. They are a very necessary part of this process and without injection moulding and nurdles there are thousands of products that wouldn’t be (cheaply) available to us.
One of the big problems with our reliance on plastic is “legacy”. That bottle of pop you just threw in the bin? Yeah…barring any traumatic events, that will still look like a bottle in a thouand years time (unless it gets recycled). It might get broken down a bit, but the essential nature of the plastic will remain relatively unchanged. It won’t oxidise for example. Plastics are relatively stable and, unless ‘pre-programmed’ with some sort of self-destruct (e.g. compostable plastics) to cause them to breakdown after some time in use. Clearly these are not suitable for all applications; the majority of plastics will hang around in the environment for a long time.
As a friend of mine says, so what? Well, nurdles are not manufactured where they are needed: they are packaged, or loaded into containers, transferred by road, rail and sea, decanted, stored locally before use. Sometimes there will be multiple transfers between production and end use. Some nurdles are spilt and wend their way into the water course.
So? How big is this problem? It’s difficult to know exactly how much plastic is produced in this form and consumed on an annual basis globally, but as a starting point, according to legislation signed by a certain Governor Schwarzenegger back in 2007, 27 million tonnes are produced in the US annually. This works out at about 0.085 million tonnes per person. As of 2012, the world population is about 7 billion people. Some of these people will never see something made from plastic in their life, whilst others will use an awful lot. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the US per/person figure can be scaled. This means an annual global production of 592 million tonnes. Pessimistically, we might set an attrition value of 1% or 5.92 million tonnes. Nurdles vary in size but are typically 5 mm or less in diameter, spherical or cylindrical and weigh about 20 µg each – there are about 50,000 per kg. So that works out at 296 trillion nurdles. Not 296 trillion annual production but 296 trillion lost into the environment. If you had a penny for every single nurdle then you could just about pay off the UK’s national debt twice over. The US national debt is, naturally greater (about an order of magnitude in fact) so you’d need a dime for nurdle.
Let’s say I’ve been unduly pessimistic and that handling is better than I’ve assumed and attrition is only 0.1 %. Let’s say that clean up and recapture is reducing this still further and that only 1/1000 (i.e. we’ve gone from 1/100 into the environment to 1/1000000) of all spillled nurdles make it into the water course – that is still 29.2 billion individual pieces of plastic entering the water course every year.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a scourge to me. In fact the situation is much worse than that (!) but I’ll save further exposition for another time. I’ve also got some thoughts on this which are a bit more positive, so please do keep on watching this space.
*Incidentally, the phrase “seven seas” dates back to at least 2300 BC and ancient Mesopotamia. The phrase is usually used in the sense of a Master Mariner (“he sailed the seven seas”). Many different cultures have used the phrase, although of course with different bodies of water on the list – sometimes more than seven.