When Bryan McNeill started kayaking in 2013, he couldn’t have predicted his newfound passion would lead him on an epic voyage from the gentle currents of the Eramosa River in Guelph to the banks of the River Ilen in the historic town of Skibbereen in County Cork, Ireland.
The common thread that runs throughout the thickening plot and connects the many colourful characters McNeill has encountered in this transatlantic tale is plastic.
“I had never kayaked before and I loved it,” said McNeill. “It’s your first time on the river and your just getting used to being in the water and you see a plastic bottle then you see another and another and another. On my way back I decided I am going to take the plastic out because it’s not supposed to be there.”
He started documenting his one-man, cleanup campaign on social media under the name #riverloot and by 2017 had removed countless bags of garbage from the river.
“I just want to do something because I didn’t see there being any accountability,” said McNeill. “In 2017, I took out 35 large garbage bags of plastic. This is documented and garnered me some pretty cool international attention.”
Most of the waste McNeill was pulling from the river was easily identified as carelessly discarded water bottles, food containers and other consumer product packaging but the source of countless micro-plastic pellets remained a mystery.
“I really started getting into my head about what they were,” he said. “How did they get here? Where did they come from?”
He eventually identified the pellets as nurdles, after watching the 2008 documentary “Addicted to Plastic” by Ian Connacher.
“The basic building blocks of the plastics industry are polymer pellets or nurdles,” McNeill said. “It’s how the plastics industry moves different types of plastic for production purposes. They get melted down and formed into everything from plastic bottles to computers and even my kayak.”
The answer to how nurdles were ending up in the Eramosa came when a friend joined him for a routine river cleanup excursion.
“We went for a paddle, and I was scooping them out of the river, and he said, ‘I know where those are coming from,’” McNeill recalled. “We paddled further up and there was PDI. (Polymer Distribution Inc) He said, ‘This is what they do. They ship these things.’”
McNeill got some pushback from PDI employees after posting the discovery on his #riverloot page but a 2017, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks investigation confirmed many of his suspicions.
“I’m not saying that all the nurdles in the river come from PDI, but a good amount of them do, and that has been proven through the ministry’s investigation,” he said. “They fall off the rail cars. I took a walk from the spur behind PDI on Elizabeth Street all the way down that train track to Stone Road and you can, actually find pellets among the stones.”
The majority, he believed, were getting in the Eramosa at a rail bridge east of the PDI facility on Victoria Road next to the river.
McNeill shared what he found with ministry investigators, PDI environmental engineers, city officials and journalists, some of whom joined him for a paddle.
Eventually, PDI agreed to remove the nurdles from the river, adopt new handling procedures and install special filters in the storm drains around their facilities to catch nurdles and other micro-plastics before they enter the river. They also agreed to respond to reports from the ministry initiated by McNeill and others whenever collections of nurdles were identified in the river.
“They did a wonderful job,” said McNeill. “They cleaned up hypodermic needles and bottles and pellets, what I understand, from the train bridge all the way downstream to where the river leaves the city.”
McNeill's efforts were first documented on GuelphToday in 2019.
Media coverage of McNeill’s efforts caught the attention of actor Jeremy Irons and award-winning film producer David Puttnam, who invited him to Skibbereen in County Cork, Ireland, in March of 2018 to help with a campaign they were leading to prevent a plastic processing company from setting up in the historic coastal community.
“They had a really good team with some really smart and powerful people,” said McNeill. “I brought a container of nurdles that were passed around and this was all in the process of teaching the townspeople about the negative consequences of having a thermoplastics manufacturing facility move into your town.”
The campaign was a success, and the company cancelled its plans to set up in Skibbereen, but when McNeill got home, he faced new hurdles in his effort to remove all the nurdles from the Eramosa River.
“I never saw any cleanup after the initial big cleanup,” he said. “It is supposed to be ongoing.”
McNeill was told by his contact at the ministry that if he came across concentrations of nurdles in the river to geolocate the site, take a picture and forward it to their office. They would then forward it to PDI to clean it up.
“That’s the ongoing process,” said McNeill. “So, I would do that weekly and nothing was getting cleaned, or it was getting cleaned and so many were getting off site, it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned.”
McNeill invited GuelphToday to join him for a short paddle, Sunday July 3, into a section of reeds near the confluence of the Speed and Eramosa Rivers and within minutes he was straining nurdles from the river.
“If you look inside my strainer, you can see that there are newer looking pellets and really old looking pellets,” he said. “How long have these things been wherever they’ve been stuck, slowly getting pushed through the sewer system, collecting dirt, oily toxins and whatnot. They take tens of thousands of years to break up.”
GuelphToday contacted the ministry for comment and senior communications advisor for the region, Jennifer Hall, responded by email and confirmed they did notify PDI about a citizen report of nurdles in the river.
“The ministry attended the site on May 30, 2022 and confirmed the off-site migration of nurdles/pellets from PDI,” Hall said. “As a result of this site visit, PDI was required to correct failed nurdle/pellet control systems on-site.”
Hall said that PDI told the ministry they completed a river cleanup on June 30, 2022, followed by an inspection of the river July 4, 2022, and did not identify the presence of any nurdles/pellets in the river.
“As a result of your report of pellets observed over the weekend, the ministry contacted PDI and they initiated their response protocol,” Hall said. “Staff from the ministry will attend the site later this week to confirm the status of on-site plastic management and follow-up on this report.”
GuelphToday contacted PDI for comment but not yet responded.
McNeill and a group of volunteers completed a micro-plastic river cleanup on the afternoon of July 6 and recovered large amounts of nurdles along the stretch of river between Gordon Street and the train bridge.
For more information about McNeill’s efforts or to take part in the next river nurdle cleanup vist: @river.loot