The facts

  • Nurdles, or plastic pellets, are small lentil-sized pieces of plastic that are the building blocks for most plastic products.
  • Nurdles are by definition a microplastic because they are less than 5mm in size.
  • Nurdles are melted down and made into many plastic items, from clothes to cars, food wrappers to artificial Christmas trees.
  • It takes roughly 600 nurdles to create one small plastic disposable water bottle.
  • Nurdles are increasingly finding their way into the natural environment, particularly the ocean, threatening a variety of marine wildlife.

How do nurdles end up in the ocean?

It is estimated that 11.5 trillion nurdles end up in the ocean every year. If you were to link them up in a chain, they would circle the earth one and half times. Their small size and weight mean they are easy to transport, but very difficult to retrieve when they spill into the marine environment. 

Credit: Ed Marshall

Nurdles enter the ocean in two ways:

  • From land: Nurdles can spill at every stage of the plastic production process, from production sites, during transportation and in manufacturing stages. Factory spills and spills during transit are a result of limited awareness, careless handling, insecure storage and inappropriate equipment. When nurdles spill onto the ground, wind and rain can wash them down storm drains or into waterways, from where they ultimately end up in the ocean.
  • At sea: Nurdles are often shipped across the ocean in large containers. Pellets can leak out of damaged packaging and containers on board ships, as well as being spilled in large quantities in disaster situations. In 2021, the X-Press pearl shipwreck saw 1680 tonnes of nurdles spilled into the ocean and onto the shores of Sri Lanka, the largest recorded nurdle spill at sea.

The rules and regulations that govern shipping activities are set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), an agency of the United Nations. There are no IMO rules specifically requiring the safe transport of plastic pellets across the ocean despite the impact that pellet pollution has on the environment.

trillion nurdles are estimated to end up in the oceans every year
tonnes of nurdles were spilled from the X-Press pearl shipwreck
nurdles make up one small plastic bottle

Can nurdles be removed from the ocean?

One of the most dangerous problems with nurdle pollution is that it’s nearly impossible to remove them from the ocean once they have entered it. This is why it’s pivotal that we act fast to ensure nurdles stop escaping.  
Nurdles and other microplastics are harder to remove than large items such as fishing nets and plastic bottles. Their small size and light weight mean oceanic currents can carry them far and wide effortlessly, making it almost impossible to trace and remove them. 

Nurdles and wildlife

Credit: Ed Marshall

Like all plastics in the ocean, nurdles pose a great threat to marine life. These small round plastics usually float on the surface of the water where many species feed. They’re easily mistaken for fish eggs and other foods by a variety of species, including turtles, fish and seabirds. When eaten, plastic gives the feeling of being full, which eventually leads to starvation and death for many species. Nurdles are also magnets for toxic pollutants; they attract chemical toxins from the water around them and adsorb them like a sponge. These pollutants can build up in the fatty tissues of species, including those we eat.

Read more about the species most affected by nurdle pollution

Breaking down

Plastic’s most infamous attribute is its immortality: it will never decompose, only breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. In the ocean, nurdles become brittle from exposure to the sun and impact of the waves, and split into increasingly smaller fragments over time, releasing harmful chemicals and greenhouse gases in the process. These ever-shrinking microplastics, only visible through a microscope, pose some of the greatest dangers to the marine ecosystem; plastics this small have been ingested by plankton, the base of the entire marine food chain 

Keeping pellets where they belong – and out of our ocean

Credit: Avigator Fortuner / Shutterstock

Nurdles spills at sea and on land are just as dangerous and damaging to the marine ecosystem as an oil spill, yet there are no fines or accountability measures in place for industries when this happens.  

Pellet loss is preventable. To stop nurdles from entering the environment we must make sure that all pellet handlers improve handling, labelling, packaging and policies for improved transportation so that pellets do not escape in the first place. 

Nurdles are, essentially, solidified oil. It is imperative that they are accorded the same treatment as other toxic substances.