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Millions of kilos of plastic are floating in the seas and oceans. Various organizations are working to clean up the plastic. Large pieces are relatively easy to sieve out of the water, but with small pieces such as plastic granulate, it is much more difficult. Moreover, it is not even clear yet how many of those small balls end up in the water every day. That’s why students of the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) want to map this out with a machine that counts plastic granules.

“A machine just for counting these small plastic balls does not sound like a solution at first, but before we can offer any solution, we first need to know how big the problem is,” says Eileen Morée, co-founder of Nurdle Soup, the foundation the students are now setting up. “We want to know how many plastic balls actually flow through the rivers to the seas and oceans every day”. The first prototype of the machine is now being tested. “With sensors, we scan the water and count the plastic granules,” Morée explains. It is a machine that is hanging above the water. “We don’t want to break the flow of the river.”

Sailing for humans and animals

Measuring and solving the ‘nurdle problem’ is important because plastic balls can be dangerous for animals and people. “The balls look like fish eggs and are therefore eaten by birds and fish. After a while, their entire bellies are full of plastic so that no food can reach them. The animals then die of slow starvation,” says Morée. “In addition, these plastic balls, also called nurdles, can absorb chemicals such as pesticides. That’s what the animals that eat them get.” And even for humans, the pellets can be a danger in the long run. “The plastic balls fall apart in the water into even smaller pieces of plastic. They can be left behind in the drinking water, for example.”

Little attention

“Once we have mapped out how many nurdles there are in the water, we can look for solutions. We can then demonstrate that this really is a problem that is not being addressed enough at the moment,” she says. Filtering the plastic nurdles out of the water seems an obvious solution, but according to Morée, it isn’t. “They are so small that it is very difficult to remove them from the water, especially once they have spread over the waters. Filtering would then have to be done in many different places. That makes it complicated and expensive.”

Tackling the problem at the source

Therefore, the students want to tackle the problem at the source, at the companies that leak the nurdles. “Leaks sometimes happen unintentionally. Our sensors allow us to monitor very well where the plastic is leaking and how big the problem really is,” says Morée. It’s still quite a job to convince companies to do something about it. Morée: “Closing the leak or cleaning up the plastic means a loss of turnover for them. Financially, it’s not that attractive for companies. That makes it extra difficult to convince them to do something about it.”

But most companies do see the problem. European plastic producers have set up an umbrella organisation: PlasticsEurope. “This is where they work together to see how they can reduce the leakage of nurdles,” Morée explains. Nurdle Soup’s machine and the students’ technical knowledge could help.

No regulation

“The government does not yet have any regulations regarding plastic granulate that companies have to comply with. That makes it extra difficult”, she says. “According to the RIVM, plastic granulate comes on fourth place when it comes to contamination by microplastics. The government first focuses on the three largest sources of pollution.”

In the coming period, the students will talk to companies to see how they can tackle this problem together. Morée: “It is important to stay in discussion and to work together on a solution. In this way, we hope to be able to contribute to a solution for the growing plastic problem”.

Nurdle Soup is part of TU/e innovation Space. This is a place where student teams and start-ups work on their solutions to societal problems. Read more about the teams here.