Nurdles: the plastic pellets polluting our oceans

Nurdles are tiny pellets used in the production of plastics that, due to mismanagement and spills, are now polluting the oceans. Despite their size they can cause big problems for marine life and now cover a large portion of our coastlines.

Nurdles are becoming a common sight on most beaches

If you have never heard of a nurdle before then you are probably not alone. But don’t let the adorable name fool you into thinking they are safe. The tiny plastic pellets pose a big problem for marine life and they’re far more widespread than you might think. Nurdles are the raw material used in the manufacture of most plastic items from shopping bags to drinking straws and everything in between. But worldwide billions of these plastic pieces are lost into the oceans from spills every year and as a result they are now a common sight on our coastlines. Due to their size and appearance they are often mistaken for food by many species of fish, birds and crustaceans. Not only is eating plastic damaging to the animals but high concentrations of toxic chemicals can build up in them and enter the food chain, even reaching us. Nurdles are one of many examples of plastic pollution but they are also potentially the most dangerous form.

What is a nurdle?

The term nurdle is a colloquial name given to ‘pre-production plastic pellets’ which are essentially the building blocks of almost all everyday plastic products including bottles, bags, drinking straws, car components and computer keyboards. They are often between 3-5mm in size and are commonly described as lentil-shaped. While they are normally transparent they occasionally turn yellow over time and depending on what they’re used for can come in a range of different colours. Although they are now abundant on our coastlines they are also very inconspicuous. Chances are you have probably walked past them on the beach and not even realised it.

Nurdles can come in a range of shapes and sizes

The stats

Research into nurdles has only really started properly in the last decade and so recorded surveys do not stretch that far back. However a study carried out in 2017 gave us the best snapshot of the situation to date. Over 600 volunteers surveyed 279 beaches across the UK and found that 73% of them were covered in the tiny plastic pellets. They also identified hot spots across the country including Cornwall, where on one beach over 127,000 nurdles were found in just one 100 metre stretch. They have also been found on the remote Scilly Isles and on the embankment of the river Thames in London. Researchers using the data estimate that 53 million nurdles escape into the sea surrounding the UK every year and that across Europe 230,000 tonnes enter the oceans annually. For something that is supposed to be used to make other products that is an alarming rate of loss.

Hard to contain

So why is it that so many nurdles are lost by the plastic industry and now reside in our oceans? Well the main factor is their miniscule size that allows them to literally slip through the cracks, but also the volume and rate of which they are used globally. Currently it is possible for nurdles to be lost at every step of the supply chain in the plastic industry. They spill easily when they are transferred between containers or onto boats and within factories that convert them into new products. They are either spilt directly into the ocean or into drainage systems that release them into major rivers. There are also some rare instances of mass spills such as in South Africa where in October 2017 over 50 tonnes of nurdles were spilt from a ship after a storm and coated over 2,000km of coastline.

Containers filled with nurdles fell into Durban harbour in South Africa in 2017

This all may not seem like enough to produce the levels of pollution we are seeing, but it happens at nearly every plastic production facility all over the world on a regular basis and it all adds up. Unfortunately until recently the attitude of the plastics industry towards pollution has been very lax and little has been done to prevent spills. But due to increasing pressure from conservation groups there is now a big push to reduce the loss of nurdles during the plastic production process. An international programme called Operation Clean Sweep is providing practical solutions to prevent spills and hundreds of companies in the industry have already signed up to improve their processes. Hopefully this will reduce pollution significantly in the future but it does not mitigate against the billions of pellets already in the open ocean.

Easy to eat

Studies have shown that 180 marine species from all major groups have been found to ingest plastic items. Unfortunately nurdles are no different, in fact they are one of the main contributors. This is mainly because of their size and colour. They are often mistaken by seabirds as fish eggs and by ocean dwelling species as detritus, which is organic matter from dead organisms that forms the base of ocean food chains. The nurdles remain in the animal’s stomach causing ulceration and often making them feel full and reducing the amount they eat which can lead to starvation. Unfortunately the problems do not end with the individual who consumed the nurdles but are also passed up the food chain due to their chemical properties.

Seabirds often mistake nurdles like these as fish eggs

Toxic taste

What makes nurdles potentially more dangerous than any other form of plastic pollution is their ability to soak up toxic chemicals like a sponge. Persistent Bioaccumulating Toxins (PBTs) are chemicals released by industrial processes that accumulate in animal tissue and cause long term damage. PBT’s also pose a risk to human health as they can be passed on to us through eating fish or other effected animals. As a result they are now banned in most parts of the world, however the levels of PBT’s in the ocean is still high. Nurdles are one of the main ways PBT’s are transferred to animals and then through the food web to us as they can have concentrations millions of times stronger than seawater. As well as soaking up PBT’s some nurdles can have high levels of chemical additives, depending on their intended use, and these can also leak out into the environment or contaminate animals.

Going microscopic

With nurdles there is also an issue with the pellets that are not eaten because they can break down into smaller pieces that can create a bigger problem. You’ve probably already heard of microplastics and although some people would consider nurdles to be microplastics they are at the very top of the size range. But UV rays from sunlight, oxygen exposure and wave action can break them down into pieces the size of a grain of sand. Microplastics are now widespread across the oceans, a recent study by the University of Exeter into turtles found that every single individual in a cross species group of 100 had ingested microplastics. It’s also not just bigger species like turtles that are effected, microscopic zooplankton have also been shown to ingest the fragments often fatally. The problem is once nurdles have broken down into microplastics there is virtually no way to remove them from the ocean.  

Given time nurdles can break down into microplastics like these

What you can do to help

Public awareness of how we are impacting our own planet is at a record high and for the first time there is a largescale shift in people trying to move away from the use of plastic. You can start helping by reducing your own plastic use because most plastics you use will be associated with some nurdle pollution somewhere in its production. But if you want to help more directly in the fight against nurdles then you can visit the Great Nurdle Hunt to learn more. They raise awareness of the nurdle problem as well as collecting data on sightings and removing them from our shorelines. You can go down to your local beach and hunt for the tiny pesks yourself and easily upload your results to their website.

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