It’s too early to know what the impact of the spill of at least hundreds of thousands of plastic nurdles onto south-west beaches will be, a Warrnambool-based ecotoxicologist says.
Associate Professor Julie Mondon is leading a Deakin University study into the nurdles, which were released into the ocean through the Warrnambool Sewage Treatment Plant after being dumped.
She said she was not familiar with any other cases of nurdles getting through a sewage treatment system.
Dr Mondon said when 15 billion nurdles were spilled in Hong Kong in 2012, dead sea birds and fish washed up with the pellets.
“We are working with groups to keep an eye on any animals that are unwell that get washed up, or wash up and are dead,” she said.
“We will be watching out to see if they are linked with the nurdles.”
The associate professor said it had been difficult for those involved to work out how to respond because the incident was unfamiliar.
“if it had been an oil spill, it would be very clear,” Dr Mondon said.
“In this particular case, we’re learning as we’re going.”
Although there had been worse nurdle spills globally, the impact of the Warrnambool spill on the coastline was very significant, Dr Mondon said.
“The difficulty with these sorts of spills is that they move,” she said.
“Once they've been washed up on a beach and you can’t collect them off that beach in time, they can go off with tide and onto the next beach.”
Dr Mondon said the volunteers who responded quickly to collect nurdles had done a fantastic job and would have made a significant impact.
Wannon Water said it removed 700 litres of nurdles from its plant, which experts say equates to millions of the pellets.
Volunteers have led the clean-up of hundreds of thousands of nurdles, working daily to collect the plastic using buckets and sieves since alerting authorities to the issue early last week.
The ongoing volunteer efforts are being organised through the Good Will Nurdle Hunting Facebook page.
A multi-agency team of 24 set up under the emergency management act started operating on Thursday, liaising with community volunteers from a control centre to stop further contamination, coordinate and integrate the clean-up and manage the response.
The team is being led by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. (DELWP).
Warrnabool’s Colleen Hughson, who has managed volunteer efforts, said having the nurdle incident treated as a state emergency had been good news.
“It means we now have support and resources to clean up this hazardous plastic pellet pollution,” she said.
"The team – and I say team because I've certainly had plenty of assistance – at the Good Will Nurdle Hunting Facebook page has had a very busy 12 days either on the beach cleaning nurdles or online, encouraging others to get down the beach."
Ms Hughson said official action had taken so long because nobody knew how to respond.
“This is the first time something like this has happened on our shores that we know of,” she said.
“The problem with our environmental emergency is that there was no immediate evidence that marine animals were dying. A beached whale is obvious, an oil spill where you see animals stuck in the oil is obvious but cute little nurdles on the beach isn't so obvious.
“Unfortunately the impacts of this spill on marine animals and seabirds may not been seen for a few weeks or months.
“Please get involved in the clean-up of nurdles to reduce the impacts on our beautiful marine environment.”
The incident management team has set up formal collection points for volunteers to go to to assist with nurdle collections.
The points are at Ritchie Street, East Beach in Port Fairy, Killarney Beach and the Thunder Point car park (or Shelly Beach), and volunteers will get access to bottled water, sunscreen and safe nurdle collection and disposal instructions.
The team has developed a nurdle collection information sheet.
Collection times this weekend are on Saturday from 10am to 2pm and on Sunday from 1pm to 3pm.