Have you ever walked along your favorite beach or estuary and noticed small round plastic pellets among the shells, sand, and debris? These tiny pellets are called nurdles, and they are causing devastating damage to our marine habitats.

What Is A Nurdle?

A nurdles, also called a “pre-production pellet” is the first form of any plastic product you can think of. Nurdles are used to make anything plastic, from plastic water bottles to automobile parts. They have sizes ranging from 1 mm to 5 mm in diameter, and approximately 27 million tonnes of nurdles are manufactured annually in the United States alone. One kilogram of these pellets contains approximately 50 000 nurdles, and due to their small size, they are often hard to contain, and spills happen frequently. Due to these spills, leaks, storage, and transportation errors, nurdles end up in the natural environment, where they are picked up by the wind or transported by rainwater, and enter watercourses, eventually washing down to the ocean.

Nurdles are made up of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, or other plastic types, and in some cases, they contain additives to create different densities. They originate from plastic production facilities, where plastic strings are chopped into small pieces, approximately the shape and size of a lentil. This size enables easy transportation and processing at the various plastic manufacturing centers. To allow transport, nurdles are placed within bags, which are in turn placed into containers and transported to the manufacturing facility. It is during this packing and transport process that many nurdles end up in the environment.

The first reported appearance of nurdles on beaches dates back to 1970, however, plastic production began in 1940, so there is a possibility that nurdles have been entering our water sources and the ocean since then but went unreported or unnoticed.

Why Should We Care About Nurdles?

Nurdles are produced in bright colors, and because of this, they are often easily confused for food by marine life. Fish, sea turtles, krill and seabirds are eating these pellets. Their stomachs fill with plastic, so they do not eat nutritional food, and they eventually die of starvation, with a body filled with plastic.

Nurdles are also able to absorb harmful toxins and chemicals, such as persistent organic pollutants. These toxins and chemicals enter our ecosystems through the application of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides in agricultural practices. The nurdles, filled with chemicals and toxins, are eaten by fish, whereafter one of two things happen. Firstly, the poisoned fish dies, whereafter it is eaten by a second fish, and the toxins start to build up in the food chain, a process known as biomagnification. Biomagnification refers to the increased concentration of a toxic chemical the higher an animal is on the food chain. The second possibility is that humans catch these fish filled with toxins, and we eat them ourselves. A recent study done by scientists from the University of Arizona confirmed that for the first time microplastics were found in human organs.

The creation of nurdles – and all plastic products – requires fossil fuels. The extraction and use of fossil fuels are already causing environmental problems, and the burning of fossil fuels is increasing the rate of climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Microplastics In The Ocean

Nurdles form a large part of pollution in the oceans, as well as plastic pollution on beaches. Once in the ocean, they become weathered, and eventually turn into microplastics. Every year, approximately 250 000 tons of nurdles enter our rivers and oceans. Nurdles are however not the only plastic found in our oceans. Larger plastic items enter the ocean, and get fragmented into smaller pieces, until they are microplastics. Even certain clothing items release microplastics into the water when we wash them, and this water eventually flows into the ocean.

Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is also contributing to plastic pollution, as single-use face masks and gloves are being increasingly used – and irresponsibly disposed of.

If we add all that to the 8 million pieces of plastic already entering our oceans every day, and the millions of marine animals dying of plastic ingestion every year, we realize how big the microplastic problem in the ocean is.

What Can We Do To Fix The Problem?

The first step we as individuals can take is to educate ourselves about a zero-waste lifestyle and move away from single-use plastics to a more sustainable lifestyle, such as using reusable water bottles, cloth shopping bags and avoiding food wrapped in single-use plastics. If we want nurdles out of water bodies, we must decrease the demand for plastic. We can also use our plastic products to the fullest before replacing or recycling them, as globally only 9% of plastic is recycled. Personal products containing microbeads – such as exfoliating scrubs – should be avoided as these beads wash down the drain and into our water bodies. Regular beach clean-ups can also assist with decreasing the amount of plastic waste entering – or returning to – the ocean.

To finally put an end to the nurdle problem, governments and large corporations must come on board, as individuals alone cannot bring a full solution to the problem. The federal government in several states in the US does not classify nurdles as hazardous material. The key to ensuring long-term environmental protection from microplastics is to classify nurdles as hazardous, and to identify the roles of the state and federal agencies when a spill occurs.

The citizen scientist project, Nurdle Patrol, was founded in 2018 by Jace Tunnell, the director at Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, Texas, and aims to encourage the government to mobilize and increase the clean-up efforts of nurdle spills. Anyone going to the beach, river or lake can do a 10-minute online survey to see if their community has a nurdle problem. Once their data has been added, they can immediately print out a nurdle map and send it to their state agency or elected official. The more data collected by citizens, the bigger the chance of making a case for change.