Background to the nurdle spill

What are nurdles and why the concern?

Nurdles are small plastic pellets (about the size of a lentil) that are the raw material used in some plastics manufacturing. They can enter the environment through spills during transportation or manufacturing. Because nurdles are small and light, they are easily distributed by ocean currents.

More information about nurdles and other plastics that can impact the environment is available here.

What happened?

Like other plastics and rubbish, nurdles are often washed up on district beaches. However, in mid-November 2017, several members of the public noticed large concentrations of nurdles washed up on Shelly Beach.

This site is close to the Warrnambool Sewage Treatment Plant, operated by Wannon Water, where we release treated water to the ocean under strict licence conditions set by the Environment Protection Authority (EPA). 

Warrnamboolreclamationplant Aerial1web

After being made aware of the contamination, Wannon Water conducted an inspection of the sewage plant on November 21 and discovered nurdles in the tank and other equipment. An investigation showed the nurdles had been illegally dumped through the sewage treatment system and were being expelled to the ocean through the plant’s effluent outfall.

Operations staff isolated the tank and physically removed hundreds of litres of nurdles from the plant’s infrastructure, preventing these from entering the ocean environment. Unfortunately, as evidenced by clean-up efforts to date, millions of the plastic beads had also washed up on nearby beaches before Wannon Water was aware of the contamination.

The clean-up on beaches has involved a concerted and sustained effort by large numbers of community members including individuals, groups, schools, Wannon Water and other agency staff.

Wannon Water also reported the event to EPA and we continue to work with them throughout our investigation into the source and ongoing clean-up effort.

Is the sewage treatment plant designed to remove nurdles?

The reason Wannon Water exists is to protect the environment and public health. That’s what our employees do every day.

Our Warrnambool sewage treatment plant treats sewage and trade waste from Warrnambool, Allansford and Koroit and a range of other locations
and facilities across the region.

It has multiple systems in place, including fine screens, to filter out the huge majority of plastics and other foreign material. However, they are not designed to remove microplastics, such as these nurdles. That’s why small plastics should never be flushed or put down the sink. Larger objects are screened out before entering the plant.This is the first time we've recorded nurdles creating problems at the plant. Wannon Water has a long history of compliance with its EPA licence across all of its 18 sewage treatment plants.

Wannon Water is also embarking on a major upgrade of the Warrnambool sewage treatment plant, estimated to cost $30-$40 million and expected to be completed by 2020-21. This will include a whole new screening plant.

Are nurdles an issue in other areas?

This is not just a local concern, unfortunately. The problem with microplastics, plastics and other rubbish washing up on our beaches is a global issue and a major concern for us all.

Deakin University has been researching nurdles at their laboratories in Warrnambool and have reported that most seem to come from the one location, but there are others that appear to be from a different source.

Prevention is better than cure. We urge everyone to consider the environmental impact of their waste disposal practices in their homes and their businesses.

Our education programs consistently remind people not to flush foreign objects such as so-called ‘flushable’ wipes, nappies, cotton buds or fats. These get caught in our screens, which can cause major problems in our sewerage system and ultimately cost our customers money.

What about other sewage treatment plants along the coast?

As a precaution, Wannon Water has checked the Port Fairy and Portland sewage treatment plants, which have shown no signs of nurdles. We will continue to monitor these sites closely.