When Adnan Sheikh took his family on holiday to Sri Lanka last October, he booked them into a hotel for two weeks in Sarakkuwa beach, just off the coast from where the X-Press Pearl cargo ship caught fire and sank five months previously.
Sheikh had been charmed by the online pictures of golden sandy beaches. But when the family arrived, it was a different story.
“My kids wanted to play on the beaches and swim, but the beach was black and it seemed unsafe to even walk [on it],” says Sheikh.
The charred fuel oil and burnt debris were from the wreckage of the container ship, and littered among them was perhaps the worst hazard of all: tiny plastic pellets called nurdles.
Millions or even billions of nurdles have been washing up along the island’s coastline for hundreds of miles, from Mannar in the north to Kirinda in the south. A UN report called the incident in May 2021 the “single largest plastic spill” in history, with about 1,680 tonnes of nurdles released into the ocean.
The disaster sparked a massive clean-up effort. The Sri Lankan navy and the Marine Environment Protection Authority (Mepa) organised about 50,000 local people, mainly women, to collect nurdles and other debris – 60,000 bags of it so far. Each bag holds 50kg.
The women remove the nurdles using trommel machines, drum-like rotating sieves that filter plastic pellets from the sand. Other methods include hand-sieving and simply picking them out. In Sarakkuwa beach alone, the locals collect an average of 80-100kg of nurdles and debris every day, which they exchange for 3,000 rupees (£11) a day from the government.
While the biggest, most visible piles of nurdles have been removed, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, says Hemantha Withanage, director and environmentalist at the Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka.
“They completed the surface cleaning of nurdles, but nurdles are now buried under the sand, about two metres deep in some places. Most burnt nurdles are tiny particles we can’t remove with sieving or trommels.”
A Sri Lankan firm has developed a new machine that can remove smaller pellets, but Mepa has rejected it due to its cost, says Withanage – though he claims the Sri Lankan government could attempt to recoup the expense from the shipping company. Sri Lanka has so far filed two interim claims.
There is widespread anger here at the company’s perceived role in the nurdle spill. “These nurdles were stored inside polythene bags instead of hard containers, which made it easier to spill,” Withanage says.
A few weeks ago, a team from Mepa found a large polythene sack of nurdles buried a metre under the sand. Sri Lanka wants nurdles declared a toxic waste, and has submitted a proposal to regulate maritime transportation of plastic pellets to the International Maritime Organization, which will be discussed this year.
To Naleen Chathuranga, pastry chef at the five-star Goldi Sands hotel, located 10 miles north of Sarakkuwa on a vast sandy beach fringed with coconut palms and overlooking the azure ocean, the damage is deep.
“Nurdles are everywhere now,” says Chathuranga, digging his toes into the moist sand to unearth dozens of tiny pellets. Nearby, as two teenage boys swim, every wave leaves a line of nurdles along the shore.
But tourism can recover, he says. “Tourists know more than us about the ship disaster, but they still come here.” Visitors are slowly returning thanks to the area being close to the country’s international airport; for many tourists, Negombo is a pitstop before they fly out. The luxury hotels also spend money on their own private cleanup efforts to keep their local beaches clean.
For the fishing community, however, there are fears the impact could be felt for a long time. “Fishing is really poor these days,” says Veerapalli Shiva, a 51-year-old fisherman originally from Kochchikade in Colombo.
Shiva goes out to sea every day with 17 others who work for the owner of their boat. He only earned 250 rupees today, which is all he has to provide for his wife and three school-age children.
“We’ve been fishing here since November, and not a single day was lucrative,” he says. “We only find small fishes now. Large fishes, who bag a better price in the market, are missing. This has never happened before.”
Withanage says that most fishers were out of work for several months after the nurdle spill, and that the government was little help: Shiva only received 15,000 rupees as compensation; some received just 5,000.
“The authorities have also forgotten that we are fishing in contaminated waters,” Withanage says. “These harmful effects should be added to the compensation claim so that the government can use funds to help them.”
Meanwhile, the nurdles keep coming, piling up on the decks of the fishing boats.
“Sometimes our feet were buried in tiny pellets,” Shiva says. “We don’t have a choice. We touch them every day. They have become a part of our life now.”