Hunting for nurdles on your local beach – how to get involved

What constitutes a day out at the seaside for you? Making a sand castle? A spot of rock-pooling? Admiring the view? Since taking on my current role as projects officer for The Great Nurdle Hunt, my days on the beach have looked a little different: Much to the dismay of my companions, you will often find me crawling along the strandline, head down, fixated on finding an elusive and unwelcome beach resident: the lesser spotted, ever present nurdle…

Plastic nurdles found washed up along the shore. Credit: Madeleine Berg.
Plastic nurdles found washed up along the shore. Credit: Madeleine Berg.

Nurdles are tiny (2-3mm diameter) plastic pellets, about the size and shape of a lentil, and we really shouldn’t be finding them on our beaches. Also known as pre-production plastic pellets, they are used as the raw material for virtually all our plastic products, from Barbies to bin-liners. Their lightweight, granular nature makes them very hard to contain. Inevitably accidental spills do happen, and if they are not properly contained, pellets can be blown, washed or swept down drains or into water courses from where they can quickly find their way to the sea.

The pellets are small enough to be defined as microplastics (<5mm in diameter). Their similarity in size and shape to fish eggs makes them particularly appetising to a number of seabirds, such as puffins, fulmars and gulls. Like other microplastics, their surface is attractive to hydrophobic (‘water hating’) chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) found in seawater that like to attach themselves to plastics as well as fatty tissue in animals. Despite the fact they are relatively harmless in their raw state, this means that pellets can become more and more toxic the longer they reside in the marine environment. Pellets are so widespread, and so efficient at adsorbing these chemicals to their surface, that they are used by scientists as a means of monitoring these pollutants in seas and oceans across the globe. Of course, like other plastics, the pellets will never disappear, but only break down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming the potential fodder for smaller animals at the base of the food chain.

So what can we do to stop this? Unfortunately, there is no easy way to clean up the pellets once spilled – the problem is too diffuse and clean-up is near impossible. However, we can work with the plastics industry to stop them from spilling the pellets in the first place.

The main focus of my work with Fidra has been to contact companies working in Scotland (and beyond), to raise awareness of the effects of pellet spills on the environment. With no firm legislation in place preventing spillage, we rely on companies taking their own initiative to put containment procedures in place. Companies do not want to lose raw material, so often pellet loss prevention goes hand in hand with improvement in efficiency, health and safety, and general housekeeping. However, an additional review of procedures from a pellet loss perspective is often required to move from ‘almost zero’ to zero pellet loss. Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) is an industry-devised scheme that provides detailed guidelines on how best to make improvements. Both Fidra and Fauna & Flora International want to see all companies that handle pellets signed up to OCS, showing their commitment to tackling pellet loss.

Nurdles on the beach. Credit: Clare McIntyre @ Witchcreations.
Nurdles on the beach. Credit: Clare McIntyre @ Witchcreations.

Many companies we work with are keen to make a difference and are very proactive in their approach to pellet loss. However, many more companies refuse to engage with us, or, worse, aren’t aware of the issue or the existence of Operation Clean Sweep at all.

That is the reason we continue hunting down nurdles. My nurdle hunting efforts, along with those of hundreds of volunteers, contribute to a growing database of evidence to highlight the distribution and extent of this surprisingly widespread pollutant. You can explore all our nurdle find data on our online map. Although the project started with a focus on Scotland, our map now sports finds from Norway to Australia and we welcome hunters to submit their findings from across the globe.

Not only can we use this data to work out where pollution hotspots are, it also shows companies that the public are starting to pay attention to these spills. The more the issue is drawn to the public eye, the more industry will realise that they need to do their bit to keep this pollutant at bay.

We have always worked closely with FFI’s marine plastic pollution team, whose pellet pollution work concentrates on dealing with retailers and brands in order to raise awareness of pellet pollution higher up the supply chain.

Feeling inspired to go on your own hunt? Why not watch our introductory video guide?

Or have a look at our website, at www.nurdlehunt.org.uk, where you can find tips on how to hunt as well as how to submit your findings, and more information about how we work with industry to solve the problem.

Happy Hunting!

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