Steph is a digital content creator with a background in marine conservation communications.
Nurdles are between 2-5mm in diameter, and are often shaped like a lentil or a pea. They come in a variety of colours, but the majority of nurdles are clear or white. You might also see nurdles that are black, blue, green and yellow.
Nurdles are most commonly found on beaches and near waterways, such as rivers and streams. They can be found lodged between rocks or amassed in seaweed or debris on beaches.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We need nurdles to be kept where they belong – and out of our ocean.