Nurdles, also known as “pre-production pellets,” are small pellets of plastic resin, about the size of a lentil, that serve as raw material for manufacturing everyday plastic products. These lightweight pellets are also a major source of microplastic pollution. Easily caught by the wind when spills occur during transport or handling, they wash or float their way into waterways, oceans, and beaches.
Since plastic litter is all over the planet, nurdles are the building blocks of our current plastic pollution crisis.
According to The Great Nurdle Hunt, a global nurdle data collection initiative of the U.K.-based charity Fidra, “There is currently no practical way of removing nurdles from the sea but we can stop the problem from getting worse.”
The Life Cycle of Nurdles
According to Dr. Abigail Entwistle, “Nurdles start their life within plastic production facilities, extruded like string and then chopped into short pieces — the approximate size and shape of a lentil (or into finer-grade flakes and powders).”
This enables both easy transportation and processing between the many manufacturing centers responsible for creating a final product.
During their journey, nurdles “are bundled into bags, siphoned into containers, hefted into trucks, shunted by forklifts and/or poured into containers.”
If a plastic product is recycled, it is chopped up, heated, and treated to be turned back into nurdles.
How Did Nurdles Become a Problem?
Nurdles are spilled at every stage of the plastic production, manufacturing, and recycling process, often due to bad management. “[Nurdles] often make a bid for freedom,” explains Dr. Entwistle. “If you have ever poured lentils from a bag into a jar, you know how easy it is to [send] them bouncing onto the kitchen floor.”
While the plastic industry’s voluntary Operation Clean Sweep encourages best practices towards zero spillage, there is no external compliance check.
Although the U.S. Clean Water Act was passed to protect our waterways, it allows permitted manufacturers to discharge a certain amount of pollutants. Because it’s so hard to trace nurdles back to their origin, rule-breakers are rarely charged. In 2019, a Texas judge approved a measly, yet historic, $50 million settlement for known polluter Formosa (out of a $184 million maximum penalty).
Once spilled, wind and rain quickly disperse tiny nurdles into the ocean via storm drains. They make up approximately 250,000 tons of the 8 million tons of plastic entering our oceans each year.
Degraded into smaller particles by weather and water, they absorb chemicals like DDT, PCBs, and mercury on their surfaces and harm birds and marine animals that often mistake them for food.
How We Can Fix a World of Nurdles?
“The federal government does not currently see nurdles as a ‘hazardous material.’ This needs to change,” says Jace Tunnell, the director at Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Port Aransas, Texas. Tunnell has found millions of nurdles off the Texan coastline.
“The key to ensuring long-term protection is to classify plastic pellets as hazardous and identify roles of state and federal agencies for when the next spill occurs, which will likely happen more frequently with the increase of plastic pellet production.” (California is the only state with a “nurdle law” that does both.)
There are some promising developments, though. “The Texas Surfrider Foundation drafted a Texas Nurdle Bill that would mandate discharge permit changes to ‘zero plastic pellet loss to the environment,’” says Tunnell. He hopes this can provide a template for other states. State Representative Todd Hunter (R) has agreed to author the bill.
To collect data on nurdle concentration and move legislative action forward, Tunnell founded citizen scientist project Nurdle Patrol in 2018.
It’s super simple, and anyone can take part. “People going out to the beach, a riverbank, or lake shoreline do a 10-minute survey to see if their community has a nurdle problem,” says Tunnell. “After adding their data into a reporting form, they can immediately print a nurdle map to send their state agency or elected official.”
Since 2018, there have been three major spill events — in Texas, South Carolina, and Louisiana — that received “little to no response from federal or state agencies in terms of cleanup or investigation.”
But Tunnell puts a lot of stock in citizen scientists. “The more data people collect, the better chance of making the case for change.”
What You Can Do
The most important thing you can do is commit to reducing your plastic consumption.
- Learn more about a minimalist or zero waste lifestyle.
- Use plastic possessions to the fullest before replacing or recycling. Globally, only 9% of plastic is recycled and most can only be downcycled into fabrics, after which they take hundreds of years to break down.
- Don’t buy personal care products with microbeads in them. After going down the drain, these often reach waterways where animals eat them and get sick.
Join the Nurdle Patrol to collect data, educate your community, and help pass state initiatives to pressure polluters. Start with the training video on the Nurdle Patrol homepage.