Environment

Nurdles: The invisible plastic pollution problem

You've probably never heard of nurdles - but these tiny pellets are now the second largest type of plastic pollution in the oceans.

Nurdle pellets

Most people haven't heard of nurdles, but they're wreaking havoc on our ecosystems. (Image: @madicattt/Sustainable coastlines/Flickr)

They might have an adorable name, but nurdles are a type of plastic pollution that’s wreaking havoc on the natural environment. 

For most people it’s plastic bottles and packaging that spring to mind when we think of plastic waste. Yet nurdles – tiny plastic pellets – now make up the second largest form of plastic pollution in global oceans. It’s estimated that close to 230,000 tonnes of the pellets are entering the ocean every year. 

If you’re wondering what on earth nurdles are, and why you’ve never heard of them, you’re not alone.

The danger presented by these tiny plastic pellets has only recently come to light and many people remain unaware of just how large the problem is. 

We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about these tiny plastic pellets, what damage they’re doing to the planet and how you can act to keep them out of the ocean. 

What are nurdles and what are they used for?

Around the size of a lentil, nurdles are plastic pellets which form the basis of nearly every plastic product we use in modern life, whether medical equipment or car parts.

They’re usually made out of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, or other plastic types, and sometimes have different densities depending on how they’re made.

The pellets are transported around the world for use by numerous different companies that use plastic in their supply chains, usually in containers on ships. 

They’re considered a type of “primary microplastic”, meaning they’re intentionally produced to be very small. 

Secondary microplastics are those which are formed when larger plastics break down in the natural environment, and are usually much smaller than nurdles. 

How do nurdles end up in the ocean? 

With billions of nurdles transported around the world via ships every year – you can probably see where this is going – billions of the small pellets end up in the ocean through poor management or accidents.

Some spills from shipping containers have proved disastrous for the environment.

In 2021, 87 containers filled with nurdles spilled into the ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka, making it the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history and the largest plastic spill in human history. 

After the incident, billions of nurdles began washing up on beaches in the area, with piles up to two metres deep in some places.

Why are nurdles so bad for the environment?

The presence of nurdles in the natural environment is damaging in multiple ways.

Nurdles are usually produced using natural gas or oil, meaning their production drives up greenhouse gases and climate change. 

They also have a damaging impact on marine and bird life, with animals frequently mistaking the colourful pellets for food. 

When fish or sea birds ingest plastics, they can starve due to feeling artificially full and abstaining from eating. After the 2021 spill near Sri Lanka, numerous dolphins, fish and birds were discovered dead after ingesting nurdles. 

Nurdles can also absorb toxic chemicals from the air, sea or land, meaning that animals can also be poisoned by the pellets. 

Some research suggests that nurdles washed up on beaches can also change the characteristics of sand by, for instance, altering its temperature. This can have an impact on other animal life like turtles.

Humans are not immune from the damage either.

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Studies have repeatedly shown that microplastics – whether nurdles or larger, broken-down pieces of plastic – are now in our food chain and are being regularly ingested by humans. 

The impact of microplastic ingestion on humans isn’t fully understood, but it’s believed that microplastics could drive or contribute to numerous health complications, including inflammation in the body. 

Studies of nurdles on bathing beaches in Scotland have also shown that nurdles carry harmful bacteria like e-coli, which can cause infections in humans. 

How can I help prevent the problem? 

There are small actions you can take as an individual to prevent nurdle pollution, namely by reducing your own plastic consumption and educating your friends and family about the issue.

However, the issue is of a global scale and it will take collaborative effort to get nurdles out of the ocean once and for all.

Organisations such as The Great Nurdle Hunt are working on the problem, and there are numerous ways you can help them in the battle to stop nurdles entering the ocean. 

One easy way to get involved is to go “nurdle hunting”: head down to your nearest beach and keep a count of how many nurdles you find there. Your results can then be submitted to The Great Nurdle Hunt online. The organisation will then use your data to lobby policymakers on the nurdle issue. 

The Great Nurdle Hunt also has a list of actions you can take to help solve the problem on a global scale, including information on which regulator to report large spills to and links to consultations on reducing the number of pellets used in supply chains.

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