Sorry… What?! No nurdles aren’t some new-fangled kid’s craze, nor are they the spawn of Dr. Suess’ imagination. They are pervasive in today’s society and certainly not as cute and whimsical as they may sound.
So what exactly is a nurdle then?
A nurdle is strictly defined as a pre-production plastic pellet used in manufacturing and packaging that is about 5mm long and usually cylindrical in shape. They are the most economical way to transfer large amounts of plastic to end-use manufacturers around the globe with the United States producing about 60 billion pounds of them annually. However, the term is more often used to describe any teeny bit of plastic and can even include the plastic waste created in the manufacture of the nurdles themselves.
Nurdles commonly find their way into the marine environment during the shipping process due to spills or simply by clinging to external objects while being transferred between locations. They are so good at this that they have become regular constituents of sand with one study finding that sand particles sized 1-15mm found on remote Hawaiian beaches were 72% plastic. Nurdles are also prolific ocean surfers. Research done near the Central Pacific Gyre found that for every 6 pounds of plastic in their samples they only found one pound of plankton. Accumulations will naturally be highest near a gyre, but this research highlights the fact that plastic is currently competing as ‘food’ with plankton.
So let’s see – plastic particles approximately the same size as a number of different types of plankton… this cannot end well. Studies have shown that indeed nurdles are competing with legitimate food sources in the oceans. Oftentimes they are great mimics due to their size, colour, and shape. Tan nurdles are highly dangerous offenders as their colour most closely mimics many plankton. Such ‘nurdle plankton’ has been found embedded in the tissues of the animals that consume them. Oval shaped nurdles are also highly dangerous offenders as they are very similar to fish eggs. These ‘nurdle eggs’ have been found to have been consumed by over 70 different species of seabirds. These impacts will have profound effects on oceanic food chains.
Unfortunately nurdles don’t just disrupt the oceans at the physical level; they are also having devastating impacts at chemical and molecular levels. Nurdles are great at absorbing and concentrating toxic chemicals. They accumulate hydrophobic pollutants such as DDE and PCB. The worst part? These pollutants are often 1,000,000 times more concentrated on a nurdle than they are in ambient sea water. The result? Seabirds that have ingested such plastic pollution have been found to have higher levels of PCB content in their tissues. Plastic pollutants are thus also toxic pollutant carriers.
What You Can Do
Nurdles highlight the dark side of our quest for convenience. They are certainly not the innocent little bits of confetti that their moniker would lead us to believe. They account for about 10% of litter on global beaches and are symptomatic of the fact that the biggest source of plastic pollution comes from within the plastic industry itself.
The sad truth is every single bit of plastic ever produced still exists. Plastic came on the scene in 1855 and the plastic era really got going in the 1950s. That is a lot of plastic. The molecular weight of a single molecule of plastic is so heavy and rigid that nothing can break them down. That’s why recycling is important, but not a true solution. It is also why there is no such thing as biodegradation of petroleum-based manufactured plastic.
So what we really have to do is change. We must change both how we produce and consume plastic. The first step is refusal. Refuse plastics and try to think beyond the plastic bag and water bottle (though those are great starts!!). Consider some household and hygiene products, for example exfoliators – the bottle is probably plastic, but debatably worse are the little exfoliating beads – yup, little formed nurdles (or ‘fish eggs’ if you are a seabird), with not even the hope of being recycled. Every time you use such a product the nurdles are washed down the drain and eventually add themselves to the plastic piles in our oceans.
There are often many alternatives to the plastic in our lives. To exfoliate you could use bar soap and an exfoliating cloth, or buy a product where plastic beads are not the exfoliating mechanism; some products use natural exfoliants like ground up nuts, husks, and shells and come in glass containers. Refusing plastic may seem like an uphill battle, but there are easy places to start and lots of support. Speak Up For The Blue is happy to help! Share your refusing experiences and ask about other alternatives. We’re all in this together and every little bit counts!
About The Author
Julie-Beth McCarthy is a marine conservationist with ten years of interdisciplinary research experience. She received her MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management from Oxford University in 2010 where her dissertation explored the role that marine culture and heritage could play in marine planning in Newfoundland, Canada. She is interested in all aspects of marine conservation, particularly those that exist at the intersection of different disciplines. Having lived and travelled across Canada, Europe, the UK, US, and Australia, Julie-Beth recently moved to the west coast of Canada and is looking forward to contributing to Canada’s marine conservation efforts.