Surfrider Vancouver Chapter

Solidified Oil Spill In The Fraser River

Solidified Oil Spill (S.O.S)

This project is lead by Surfrider Vancouver Island Plastic Pellet Researchers David Boudinot and Daniel Brendle-Moczuk

For an unknown amount of time, the Fraser River has been subject to small, gradual oil spills. These spills have been largely unnoticed because they’re not normal liquid oil spills: they’re solid ones. Plastic pellets, or ‘nurdles’, are tiny lentil-sized pieces of petroleum-based plastic, and have been found washed up on more than 50 shoreline stretching from the Fraser River to the North of Vancouver Island.

Plastic nurdles are so small they’re hard to count on beach clean audits. Burrowed in the sand, pellets are easily mistaken for a small stone or piece of shell. But the pellets don’t go unnoticed by everyone: marine life is particularly vulnerable to pellet pollution, mistaking their small, transparent shape for fish eggs or other small animals. Ingested plastic is devastating to the health of marine life and a threat to the humans who eat the fish, too.

Surfrider Vancouver Island, who is leading the research campaign, have direct evidence that these pellets are coming from plastic production facilities in the Lower Mainland, along the Fraser River.

The research team, lead by plastic pellet researchers David Boudinot and Daniel Brendle-Moczuk, has been collecting data on the hotspots for pellet pollution for the past three years. Hundreds of thousands of pellets were found around 12 Metro Vancouver plastic industry sites and their surrounding areas, including the waterways nearby the sites leading to the Fraser River. All rivers lead to the ocean, of course: the team has discovered pellets on the shorelines of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, San Juan Islands, Sunshine Coast, and the Lower Mainland.

What are plastic pellets?

Plastic pellets are created from fossil fuels such as oil and gas. They are mass-manufactured as the first building block of most plastic objects. The pellets are melted down and used to create plastic bags, bottles, packaging and more. Plastic polymer pellets are made from High Density PolyEthylene (HDPE), Low Density PolyEthylene (LDPE), and Polypropylene (PP). Their pellet-sized form makes for easier melting and transportation.

How do the pellets enter the ocean?

Plastic nurdles are produced in manufacturing plants on Annacis Island in Delta. The pellets are then transported away from the plant, where they are likely spilled in the transportation process. The research team has found thousands of pellets amassed in areas surrounding the industrial sites, such as car parks and pathways, particularly after a bout of heavy rain. Storm drains are likely to be the main pathway the pellets take in reaching the Fraser River, and eventually the ocean.

How many pellets are in the ocean?

The total worldwide number of pellets in the oceans is impossible to predict, but a UK based non-profit targeting plastic nurdles, the Great Nurdle Hunt, estimates the figure to be around 230,000 tonnes a year.  In Vancouver, Boudinot predicts that this pellet spill may have been happening for decades.

“If a company spilled oil, they would be fined, yet you solidify the oil and you can release that into the water? That’s crazy.”

David Boudinot, Plastic Pellet Researcher, Surfrider Vancouver Island
Nurdles have been found washed up on over 50 beaches lining the Salish Sea

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