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What Are Nurdles—and Why Are They Bad for the Environment?

Have you heard of nurdles? The tiny plastic pellets are polluting waterways and harming animals in the process. Here's how to help.

Written by
Tehrene Firman

You've heard of microplastics and carbon emissions, but how about nurdles? A type of microplastic, nurdles are the raw material—or "pre-production building blocks"—used to create virtually every plastic item.

"Nurdles are the basis of everything plastic. All the computers you have in your house, all that kitchenware, plastic bags. Even the glasses you're wearing or the car parts in your car," Jace Tunnell, the director of the Mission-Aransas Reserve at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, and the founder of Nurdle Patrol," tells Brightly in an episode of Good Together. "All that stuff started out as a little tiny nurdle that's about the size of a lentil."

Made of plastics including polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene, the nurdles are shipped around the globe. From there, they're melted down, colored, and made into everyday products.

"About 70 years ago is when they started mass-producing them. Ever since then, there's been a release of these plastics into the environment," Tunnell says. "Where they manufacture them, as they transport them, and as they get them to the distribution sites where they're going to be sent out across the world—with every single one of these places and transportation methods, there's a way for these to get out into the environment."

Despite this being a longtime issue, the topic of nurdles hasn't been widely discussed. With all the damage they're doing to the planet, that's about to change.

The Environmental Impact of Nurdles

While nurdles may be small, they're a huge threat to the environment. First, the creation of nurdles requires fossil fuels. Creating them and transporting them also produces greenhouse gas emissions. Then there's the issue of nurdles winding up in the environment, where they cause harm to wildlife.

Tunnell says the first problem with nurdles winding up in the environment is animals eating them. Because of their small size, turtles, fish, birds, and other marine animals often confuse the plastic pellets for food. If they eat enough of them, death is inevitable: The plastic debris has no nutritional value. When it builds up in their stomach, it makes them think they're full, causing them to starve to death.

The second issue is how nurdles act like a sponge when they're in the environment, absorbing harmful chemicals as they're floating in the water. That includes "chemicals like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)," says Tunnell.

"The thing some of the research is looking at right now is these chemicals that are absorbed onto these nurdles. After an animal eats them, do they leave the lining of the stomach of the animal and get into the muscle tissue?" Tunnell says. "That's especially important when you're thinking about commercial fisheries or even recreational fisheries. Has that animal or that fish eaten that nurdle? Do the chemicals go beyond the stomach lining into the muscle tissue that then we're eating?"

So far, it's not clear what the impact is on people who are eating animals that have potentially ingested nurdles. Tunnell says there will be studies coming out within the next 2 to 3 years that will shed light on its impact on human health.

How Big Is the Nurdles Issue?

The environmental impact of nurdles became more well-known this year after the X-Press Pearl container ship sank in the Indian Ocean in May. According to the United Nations, the incidnent caused 87 containers of nurdles (around 1,680 tons) to spill into the ocean, and they've been washing up in the billions on Sri Lanka's coastline ever since, killing animals like dolphins in the process.

"It's a tourist beach destination with beautiful beaches and clear water. This ship had wrecked right off the reef offshore there. They were literally waist-deep in nurdles," Tunnell says. "There were dead animals coming up. You could pick up a fish and look inside of it and it was solid nurdles."

While this incident has been devastating, nurdles making their way into oceans isn't uncommon. It's estimated that 250,000 tons enter the ocean every year. It doesn't stop there, though. Data shows there's also high concentrations of these pellets "at riverbanks, at plastic manufacturing sites, along railroads used for transporting pellets, at distribution centers, and at processing plants." This makes the loss of nurdles an issue throughout the entire supply chain.

4 Things You Can Do About Nurdles

1. Document a Nurdles Problem in Your Community

Tunnell says becoming one of the Nurdle Patrol's citizen scientists is a great way to help. Doing so allows you to document if your community has a nurdle problem.

If you find nurdles on a beach, lake shoreline, or elsewhere, the organization says to "contact your state’s regulatory agency and ask them about permit requirements for facilities producing or handling plastic pellets." Then, submit the data on Nurdle Patrol's website.

2. Stay Away from Single-Use Plastic

It's hard to entirely shift away from single-use plastic, but being more mindful of your consumption and making sustainable swaps is a great way to help. "The consumption of plastic is directly tied to how many nurdles are out there," Tunnell says. If we consume less, companies will have to produce less.

Opt for reusable alternatives to your most-used items, like reusable water bottles and shampoo and conditioner bars. And instead of using plastic bags at the grocery store, bring your cotton tote bag. There are always ways to cut back on plastic—you just need to analyze your day-to-day and see where you can make an impact.

3. Plan a Cleanup Event

If you've been thinking about hosting a community cleanup, go for it. The Nurdle Patrol even has resources and kits available to help you get started.

"We have normal startup kits that we can send groups," he says. "It has glass sampling jars in it, tweezers, notebooks, and things like that so everything they would need to be able to put on an event is right there in that bag."

Because nurdles are so tiny, it's impossible to get them all. But every little bit removed from the environment helps.

4. Donate to Organizations Making a Difference

With so many nurdles in our oceans and other waterways, it takes a lot of resources to make a dent in removing them. Since we can't do it all on our own, donating to organizations can make an impact.

The Ocean Blue Project, for instance, has a goal of removing one million pounds of debris from lakes, oceans, and rivers by 2025. Making a donation can help them get there.