Intelligent Living
Environment Health Science Sustainability

Nurdles: The Huge Plastic Pollution Problem You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

What Nurdles Are

Nurdles are small plastic pellets used in the production of plastic products. They are about the size of a lentil. A countless amount of them are needed each year to make all our plastic items, but many don’t even make it that far and end up washing up on our shores. They are a major source of plastic pollution that you’ve probably never heard of.

Also known as “mermaid tears”, these small plastic pellets pose a huge risk to the marine environment. When they end up in the oceans they collect toxins on their surfaces. Then, because they are so small and look like food, these nurdles end up being eaten by marine wildlife.

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Nurdles are the feedstock in the plastic industry – the building blocks for most plastic goods – from single-use water bottles to television sets. They have to be small for convenience and ease of use. They are an easy to transport raw material which can be melted down and molded into all kinds of plastic products by manufacturers.

They range from 1mm to 5mm in size and are classed as a primary microplastic alongside the microbeads used in cosmetic products. These differ from other microplastics found in the ocean because they are tiny on purpose, unlike the other microplastics that break off from larger plastic waste.

How Nurdles End Up At Sea

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The problem lies in the processing and transportation of the nurdles. Often, mismanagement of these little pellets leads to billions being accidentally released into rivers and oceans through effluent pipes, blown from land or via industrial spillage.

This can happen at any step from the manufacturer through the distribution network to the plastic goods producer. In other words, spills and mishandling by industry are causing our planet’s oceans to become full of these nurdles in worryingly large numbers.

They can escape from small breaks or holes in the different containers used for their transit. Once in the environment, nurdles can be blown into our storm drains and watercourses because they can float and are ultra lightweight. The storm drains and watercourses carry them off into the oceans. Once out at sea, they disperse quickly and widely and as a result, can be found throughout the world.

Why Nurdles Are Harmful

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Although plastic polymers themselves are not toxic, they do attract other contaminants in the environment, known as Persistent Bioaccumulating Toxins (PBTs), to their surface. The plastic acts like a sponge for these toxins. The absorbed toxins accumulate on the surface of the nurdles which can concentrate the toxins to levels millions of times higher than the surrounding sea water. This is extremely dangerous because PBTs are industrial chemicals that can accumulate in animal and human tissue causing long-term damage.

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The fact that these nurdles are so small means that they go largely unnoticed and are easily ingested. What makes the situation even scarier is that they don’t even remain the small size of a lentil. The weather (sun heat) and water (and other conditions) makes them brittle and crumble into tiny microscopic particles. Over time they can fragment almost indefinitely.

Once ingested, microscopic plastic particles can pass straight into an animal’s (and humans) circulatory system and lodge in their tissues. 180 species of marine animals including, mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates have already been found to have ingested plastic. When the plastic gets trapped in the animal’s stomach it can cause ulceration, making them feel full and stopping them from eating real food.

Not only do these nurdles get covered in toxins, but they can also be colonised by microbes that are dangerous to humans. A study investigating nurdles on bathing beaches in East Lothian, Scotland, found that all five beaches tested had nurdles that were covered with E. coli–the bacterium responsible for food poisoning. Nurdles can be so noxious that people cleaning beaches or recording pellets in scientific surveys are advised not to touch them with their bare skin.

Fixing A World Of Nurdles

They have estimated that up to 53 billion nurdles are released annually just in the UK from the plastic industry – which is the same amount of nurdles that it would take to make 88 million plastic bottles.

Nurdle containers

Fortunately, there are organisations raising awareness of nurdles and their negative effects on our marine ecosystems. The Great Global Nurdle Hunt started by Fidra–a charity based in Scotland that addresses environmental issues–and the Marine Conservation Society encourages people around the world to become citizen scientists and gather data on how common these pellets are on beaches.

Data collection is key as it helps identify the main sources of this pollution from the plastic industry. The information can be used to improve management of the problem. It’s going to take an army of people to gather information about the nurdles because there are so many of them present in the environment.

There is a hunt that takes place over ten days in February each year. Citizen scientists log their nurdle findings onto a global map. The map shows the extent of nurdle pollution worldwide and how it’s changed over time. Since 2012, the number of beaches being searched has reached 1610 across six continents – locations in 18 countries and with over 60 organisations involved.

You can get involved too! Become a citizen scientist and collect nurdle data at your local beach. Once you’ve collected data, don’t forget to submit your findings to a suitable survey so that they can be used to fight the pollution problem.

If you don’t live near the coast, you’re still needed too! Nurdles have been found in most environments, including rivers, lakes and even far inland and away from water…in the soil. Just make sure not to forget your gloves when you go nurdle hunting!

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