Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

Editorial: Influx of exporters means SC needs 'nurdle' regulations

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A tiny plastic "nurdle" that washed up on Sullivan's Island in July. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

We can appreciate the State Ports Authority’s need to diversify and expand its exports, and we understand that, yes, there’s still apparently a big future in plastics.

But in light of yet another plastic pellet exporter moving to our region, we believe it’s time for South Carolina, specifically the Department of Health and Environmental Control, to put into place a strict set of rules to prevent spills and make sure polyethylene pellets, known as nurdles, do not pollute our beaches and waterways.

The Ports Authority, which is providing about $750,000 in infrastructure improvements for the latest arrival, also needs to be more selective about which kinds of businesses it incentivizes. Wisely, Berkeley County rejected any incentives for A&R Logistics.

With the arrival of A&R, which plans to set up shop in a rail-adjacent warehouse off U.S. Highway 52 near Moncks Corner, the Lowcountry will have four such pellet-moving businesses, including Frontier Logistics, which spilled nurdles into Charleston Harbor in July and was cited for violating the state’s Pollution Control Act.

Frontier and the Ports Authority paid for cleaning up the spill, and DHEC ordered the company to set up nurdle-catching nets around its shipping wharf.

But DHEC hasn’t yet said what Frontier’s punishment will be, and the volume and extent of the spill remain unclear. We have urged the agency to come down hard on the company to send a strong message to other exporters that might be eyeing the area for a new hub of operations. Additionally, DHEC should consider requiring nurdle distributors to post substantial bonds to cover the cost of cleaning up any spills.

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As reported by The Post and Courier’s David Wren, A&R is expected, at full capacity, to move up to 20,000 truckloads of nurdles through the port per year.

Nurdle pollution is a worldwide problem — they’re even in the Arctic Ocean, and obviously the plastics industry has done an insufficient job of policing itself — but the tiny pellets only started showing up around Charleston Harbor and on Sullivan’s Island this summer. And more Gulf Coast-based nurdle producers and distributors are eyeing Charleston, Savannah and other Southeastern ports to avoid regional shipping bottlenecks and to get their exports overseas faster.

The nurdle business is booming, tied to a glut of natural gas, which is used to make the pellets that can be molded into any number of products. About 30% of all U.S.-made nurdles are exported, mostly to Asia.

According to industry analysts, the U.S. production of nurdles is expected to increase 40% by 2028, or by about 8 million metric tons compared to 2018 levels, estimated to be as high as 30 million tons.

That’s a lot of nurdles, considering they average around 22,000 pellets per pound. And because they’re so tiny and look like food to seabirds and marine life, they’re often ingested. But like other plastics, they’re indigestible, clog up the guts of whatever eats them and sometimes cause animals to starve to death. They’re also known as magnets for toxins, making them doubly harmful. And like other micro-plastics, they trickle up through the food chain, perhaps in the fish on your plate.

South Carolina can’t fight a worldwide pollution problem, but it can and should prevent spills in the Palmetto State. If regulations aren’t in the works by the time lawmakers return to work in January, the Legislature must demand spill-proof nurdle-handling rules. And the Ports Authority must guarantee they are followed.

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