We need to talk about Nurdles
For hundreds of years, historians have defined periods of time by the materials and technologies that made the greatest impact on society and can be found left behind in archaeological digs – the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age.. and now, the Age of Plastic.
Over the last 50 years, the amount of plastic we produce has increased 20-fold: in 2018 alone, 350 million tonnes of plastic were produced, weighing more than the total weight of the human population! How crazy is that!
Most plastic products begin life from small nodules of plastic material called pre-production pellets or nurdles. Nurdles are lentil-size plastic pellets that are between 1-5mm in size and weigh less than a gram.
Before a plastic product becomes plastic, it exists as nurdles – these small pieces of plastic are easy to transport and quick to process. Once produced, nurdles are bagged and loaded onto container ships, moved onto trucks, shifted by forklift trucks, all over the world, before they become a finished plastic product. Nurdles are coloured, converted, or moulded to become anything from water bottles and computer keyboards, to trainers and wheelie bins.
Because they are so tiny, these pesky little pellets are easily spilled during all stages of handling, transport and processing. For example, have you ever tried to fill a container with lentils or rice and not spilt any on the counter?! It is tricky, especially when the bags are thin and flimsy and easily ripped such as the ones used. Nurdles are continuously lost in small quantities during processing and transport, and given they are small, light and mostly float in water, they are easily blown and washed into drains or directly into the marine environment. Larger spills also occur when containers filled with nurdles are lost at sea.
"It is estimated that 230,000 tonnes could be lost to the oceans globally every year, with nurdles being found on beaches around the world from Norway to New Zealand.”
Around 10 trillion nurdles are released globally every year- that is a LOT of nurdles. In the UK alone, 53 billion nurdles are released annually which is the same amount of plastic that can produce 88 million plastic bottles.
Nurdles are already so small that as soon as they enter the marine environment they are at risk of being mistaken for fish eggs and therefore are particularly attractive to seabirds, fish and other marine wildlife as food.
To confirm this point, nurdles have sadly been found in the stomachs of over 220 marine species. The plastic makes them feel full, causing them to stop hunting and eating, leading to starvation and in the worst case, death.
Nurdles have even been shown to change the characteristics of areas of sand. Microplastic nurdles, especially darker coloured ones, have been found in increase temperatures of the sand which affect animals such as nesting sea turtles and their incubating eggs. The temperature of the sand has an effect on the hatching success, the size of hatchlings and even influence the gender of the turtles born! If the eggs are incubated in temperatures around 29.5 to 34°C females are produced, compared to males being produced in temperatures of 24-29.5°C. Having more female turtles born is an issue for the future reproductive success of the species!
“Nurdles, and other microplastics, are a huge thread to the health of both our ocean and terrestrial life. When floating in the ocean, they are consumed by filter feeders in extremely high quantities.”
- Josh Beech, founder of Nurdle
In addition to this, nurdles have a hidden toxic effect: to make plastics flexible, coloured and durable, chemicals called additives (phthalates and Bisphenol A) are put into the plastics which leach out into the waters around them. Additionally, the large surface area of these nurdles allow organic chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants in the seawater and environments around them to build up on their surfaces, which then get transported around the environment, wherever the nurdle goes…
Our Scientific Lead, Libby, has done research on this issue. She collected weathered microplastic nurdles from a local wildlife reserve Chessel Bay, Southampton, and assessed the amount of additive and environmental chemicals the nurdles had on them compared to pellets straight from the factory. It confirmed what we already suspected – we found that additives have been leaching out of the plastic and chemicals in the environment had been concentrating on the surface which, once ingested into a marine animal, had the potential to be released and cause long-term damage.
“Many animals cannot regurgitate plastic. It stays in their bellies and makes them feel more full. Nurdles also harbour pollutants on their surface, which get released into the animal, passing through the food chain. This includes us.”
- Josh Beech, founder of Nurdle
Another issue we found was that natural hormones such as oestrogen (a sex hormone that females release into their pee) which are quite high in waste water treatment plants, concentrate on the surface of nurdles meaning the little pieces of plastic were acting as a transport for these human hormones, too… Why is this an issue? Well, hormones and additives chemicals are ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ as they are known to mimic and disrupt the normal hormonal functions of the animals that they get inside – animals shouldn’t be ingesting human hormones...
And remember, it’s not only marine life that can be harmed by the nasties collected on the surface of these waterborne plastic nurdles, as they also provide a perfect environment for harmful microbes such as E.coli that causes food poisoning in humans.
What can we do?
The best ways to reduce the number of plastic pellets entering the oceans are to cut them off right at the source.
Pellet leakage can be remedied by reducing the loss of pellets at every stage of the supply chain via the implementation of best practices, mandated by regulation.
However, unless you work in a plastic distribution or transport company, it is hard for us as individuals to do that! So, what about everyone else? Well, environmental organisations such as Fidra are asking for your help.
“Looking out for nurdles and logging your finds at www.nurdlehunt.org.uk helps to demonstrate the scale of the problem to government and the plastics industry.”
If you are out on the beach, in coastal waters or on the shore of a lake or stream, keep an eye out for nurdles! Fidra has set up ‘The Great Nurdle Hunt’ which encourages everyone to get out, hunt for some nurdles and log your findings into their big data base. This allows them to record the real size of this issue, identify main sources of this pollution and take this information to policy makers and industry associates so they can all work together and address the problem at the source.
Additionally, Katrina Ayling has set out to raise awareness of this issue by documenting the plastic pollution within the River Itchen, Southampton. The images of spilt nurdles is shocking and hoping to gain attention from the British Plastic Federation and UK Government to make “Operation Clean Sweep” mandatory – this initiative aims to create an industry standard that would mean all stakeholders in plastic production use industry best practices and implement systems to reduce plastic pellet loss.
If you see nurdles anywhere take pictures and upload to social media using #NurdleNovember and #OperationCleanSweep and show the government and plastic industry that we are watching and aware of the world-wide pollution issue.
In the meantime, the easiest and most impactful way we can all help is for us reduce our consumption of plastic! The less plastic we consume, the fewer nurdles needed!
See our article on switching from single-use plastic, here
Big thank you to:
Josh Beech, founder of Nurdle
Heather MacFarlane, project manager at Fidra