Graduate develops vacuum cleaner able to detect microplastics from sand - offering hope for polluted beaches

Josh Beech, founder of the company Nurdle, cleaned up one of Europe’s worst sites for plastic pollution that had microplastic pellets “a foot deep”

A British company has developed the first vacuum cleaner capable of sorting sand from plastic pellets as it cleaned one of Europe’s worst sites for plastic pollution.

It offers a new hope to remove plastic pollution on UK beaches “quicker than it can accumulate”.

Josh Beech founded the microplastic vacuum company called Nurdle after visiting Cornwall to escape revising, only to discover millions of plastic pellets washed up on the sand. He set about to create the world’s first microplastic vacuum cleaners, capable of sucking up the tiny pellets and separating them from the sand.

The Nurdle company was named after the lentil-sized pellets used to make most plastic products. It is now helping to rid Britain’s beaches and rivers of billions of pieces of plastic accumulating.

The company now has 16 micro-vacuums that it can lend out to community groups who apply to carry out beach cleans, and keeps back eight micro vacuums and one big machine for use in its own operations.

A UK graduate has developed a plastic vacuum cleaner to rid pollution on beaches. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) A UK graduate has developed a plastic vacuum cleaner to rid pollution on beaches. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
A UK graduate has developed a plastic vacuum cleaner to rid pollution on beaches. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past four months his not-for-profit company has undertaken its biggest operation so far, cleaning up one of Europe’s worst microplastic pollution sites. Armed volunteers with vacuums capable of sucking up millions of pellets a day, they slowly rid Chessel Bay near Southampton of plastic pollution.

The site, which is of special scientific interest on the banks of the tidal RiverItchen, had microplastic pellets “a foot deep” in mudflats. Locals repeatedly complained to the Environment Agency who have now forced the companies to stop polluting.

Mr Beech, a Plymouth University Environmental Science graduate, said: “It was quite an apocalyptic site. Some areas of the bay are now 90% cleaner and other areas around 70% cleaner.

“Around 99% of ocean plastic is intercepted by our coastlines but we are finding we can remove it quicker than it can accumulate.”

Southampton University found the vacuums reduced plastic by 50% in some areas and led to a 30% increase in plant coverage. No invertebrates were found to be harmed by the cleaning.

Billions of poisonous plastic pellets flood into UK rivers and seas every year. It is rife in rivers with the Mersey proportionally more polluted than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Nurdles are lost in production processes and transportation, contaminating waterways before consumers even use them. An accumulation can smother habitats, restrict plant growth, and can also be eaten by birds who mistake them for food.

It takes approximately 600 lentil-sized nurdles to make a toothbrush, 175 for a small plastic bag and 350 to make a yoghurt pot.