Nurdles on the bill at UVic’s Ideafest

Ideafest runs all week and features more than 40 events

UVic librarian and nurdle hunter David Boudinot sifts through a 10-litre pail of debris from Willows Beach

UVic librarian and nurdle hunter David Boudinot sifts through a 10-litre pail of debris from Willows Beach

Perplexed by the growing presence of nurdles on South Island beaches, a group of University of Victoria academics made a few significant breakthroughs in a short time.

With a pair of librarians at the lead, the group includes UVic geography and chemistry students intrigued by the tiny plastic pills shipped by boat and train around the world –the base product of what becomes consumer plastic.

David Boudinot, UVic business librarian and Daniel Brendle-Moczuk, UVic geospatial librarian, tackle the topic at Ideafest. The two speak at 2 p.m. Monday in the McPherson Library. Ideafest runs from March 6 to 11 with more than 40 events mostly at UVic but also off campus.

Through basic testing, chemistry students established what type of plastic nurdles are showing up on Oak Bay’s Willows Beach as well as several Saanich beaches such as Cadboro Bay and Ten Mile Point.

Most importantly, they were also able to establish what the plastic nurdles are not, which is from a famous 2012 sea freighter spill in Hong Kong that released 150,000 kilograms of nurdles into the ocean. Nurdles from that spill have shown up in England, and speculation was they had made it here too.

“We learned the pellets from the Hong Kong spill were polypropylene pellets,” Boudinot said. “We are finding are polyethylene on our beaches.”

That means they could come from Joffre, Alta., home of Nova Chemicals.

“It’s possible that the spills are happening all the time in small instances, the same as small gas or oil leaks,” Boudinot said.

“For example, if they get into a city’s storm drain, they actually float through it and make their way to the ocean because stormwater systems are designed to filter out heavy items.”

Boudinot came across the nurdle situation after volunteering on a regular beach clean up organized the Vancouver Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

He become so taken with the amount of plastic at Willows, he can’t take his two children to the beach without at least doing a two-minute beach clean, a growing movement popular in England with its own social media hashtag.

During the group’s observation visits they used a 10-litre pail as a sample. Boudinot crafted screens of three different sizes and sometimes spends a half an hour at night sifting out the nurdles.

“The (Salish Sea) currents create a natural trap on the Cattle Point end of Willows, so we sample there,” he said. “You can find the most concentrated area.”

The risk with nurdles, at less than one millimetre wide, is how they make their way into the food chain. They also look a lot like fish roe.

View the full Ideafest schedule at uvic.ca/ideafest.