Damien Enright: Manufacture of reviled plastic ‘nurdles’ a threat to Skibb’

A heated meeting of residents in Skibbereen on July 19 reflected their anxieties about the hazards they fear if a plastics factory manufacturing ‘nurdles’ — polymer pellets — is built in the town, writes Damien Enright.

Litter, including plastics, has become a scourge on beaches across the country

Last year, despite impassioned objections by locals, Cork County Council granted permission for Daly Products, an Irish branch of American company, RTP, to build a plastic compounds production unit on Baltimore Road, Skibbereen. Loud were the protests, and they continued last week.

However, the council have been reassured by the manufacturer’s promised safeguards and will not reverse the planning go-ahead. The SaveOurSkibbereen anti-factory group remains unimpressed by the reassurances.

While the ‘nimby’ (‘not in my back yard’) element plays a part, the manufacture of these small (1mm to 5mm) beadlets — basically, the building blocks for other plastics — causes concern wherever it is undertaken.

On the planetary scale, nurdles are reviled because of the devastation they cause to marine life, and the threat they pose to the future of fish as a consumable resource for humans.

Surveys on British beaches show that 75% are polluted by nurdles, which will end up in the sea, where they will absorb high concentrations of DDT, persistent, organic pollutants, like dioxins and PCBs, and hold up to 10,000 times the amounts of these toxins present in the water around them. Fish ingest them and become, literally, toxic. Often, the nurdles enter the sea when ship-borne containers, carrying thousands of tons, come adrift and break up during storms.

The good people of Skibbereen no doubt lament the damage to the Earth’s marine resources, as do we all, but those opposing the factory fear that their manufacture locally presents a real and ever-present danger to themselves and their attractive town. There has been a history of bad practice in nurdle production, transportation, and manufacture in the US.

Plastic manufacturing companies buy nurdles by the billions every year, to make nearly all the plastic products we use.

Not only do manufacturing processes present dangers of accidents, but spillages in transportation are feared. A 2016 report, commissioned by Fidra, a widely-respected Scottish conservation charity, estimates that up to 53bn nurdles may be spilled each year from land-based sources in the UK alone.

SaveOurSkibbereen intends to further appeal the planning decision.

It has not been a week of good news for the environment.

The Climate Change Advisory Council reports that in Ireland greenhouse gases, instead of dropping by one million tons per annum, are increasing by two million tons annually. We can look forward to increases in carbon taxes, and levies on diesel fuel, in line with those on petrol.

In the shorter term, we celebrated the lovely weather, and the blue skies over Ireland, for a longer sustained period than any in living memory. The good news, as I write this, is that we can expect rain for two days at the end of the week.

The other morning, as our guests, my son and his partner, from the UK, enjoyed tea and cakes in the front garden of our local Georgian house teashop, they saw an exciting drama unfold, one that would have engaged anyone, interested in birds or not.

A heron rose from the bay shore below them, with a very large fish in its beak. It was spotted by three gulls, which took flight to rob it of its prize. They dived-bombed it, like fighter planes harassed bombers in World War II.

The broad-winged heron ducked and dived with slow, powerful wing-beats.

Descending to a sandbank, even as the three gulls, not having forced it to drop the fish, tried to grasp it and pull it from its beak, it gulped down the fish, raised its head, crest erect on the crown, and snapped at the nearest gull, which only escaped being seized or impaled by a fraction. The gulls winged skyward, screaming, no doubt in ire.

Having seen them off, the heron relaxed and proceeded to preen its feather, not having lost one in the encounter.

Conical blossoms of purple flowerets crowd the wild buddleia, and small purple flowers with yellow centres crown the valerian in our garden. I have seen both bedecked with so many Vanessa butterflies that there is barely space.

But few have arrived yet, a half-dozen red admirals, a peacock or two, no small tortoiseshells or painted ladys.

But they will come, we hope.

What we would welcome, now that the slurry has been spread in expectation and our garden is a desert, is a day or two of rain.


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