The Nurdle Hurdle

What Are Nurdles and How Do They Harm Our Environment?

By Beth Raffell, Guest Blogger

Plastic pollution is everywhere, found in all shapes and sizes across our parks, gardens, coastlines and in our oceans. But have you heard about nurdles?

Nurdles can be described as small plastic pellets that are about the size of a lentil and are used as the building blocks to make most plastic products. They are the raw form of plastic products and are used to make things such as water bottles, clothes, car parts, food wrappers and almost everything else that is made of plastic. Did you know it takes approximately 600 nurdles to create one small single-use plastic water bottle?! By definition, nurdles are a primary microplastic, as they are small pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in size and are not the result of larger plastic items breaking down into smaller pieces (secondary microplastics).

Nurdles collected on a beach clean on Hayling Island, Hampshire (c) Final Straw Foundation

Unfortunately, countless amounts of nurdles are washing up on our shores and – already in microplastic form – are incredibly difficult to clean up. This is made even more problematic when over time, they become weathered and fragmented into even smaller pieces. After production, nurdles are shipped off and transported across the globe where during each stage of the process – from production and transport to being manufactured into other plastic products – they are often spilt. If not cleaned up promptly or properly, nurdles can enter waterways and seep in a deadly flow into our oceans. Once in the sea, they can spread rapidly and widely. Today, they can be found across the world from the middle of the pacific to the arctic circle.

One of the biggest nurdle pollution events the world has ever seen took place in May 2021 when the MV X-Press Pearl cargo ship caught fire and spilt 1,680 tonnes of nurdles into the ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka. This become the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history.

So what’s the issue? Nurdles pose a great threat to our marine wildlife and are often mistaken for food by animals such as seabirds and fish. Due to their size and typically clear colour, they can be mistaken for fish eggs leading them to be consumed as a false food source where they can get trapped in an animal’s stomach, leading to ulceration and causing the animal to feel full. This can prevent them from eating real food, resulting in starvation and even death. Toxic chemicals can also be transferred from these microplastics, leading to further harm not only to the animals that ingest them but other species further up the food chain, including humans. Additionally, nurdle pellets also have negative indirect effects on ecosystems such as on our beaches. Nurdles can change the characteristics of sand such as its permeability and temperature which can negatively impact sea turtles who incubate their eggs there.

Jar of nurdles collected on Hayling Island, Hampshire. Image (c) Final Straw Foundation

It has also been discovered that nurdles can attract harmful chemical contaminants in the sea to their surfaces (adsorption) such as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) – chemicals that can build up in animal and human tissue leading to long-term damage. Nurdles can act as a ‘raft’ for harmful bacteria such as E. coli or even cholera, picking them up and carrying them from sewage outfalls and agricultural runoffs to bathing waters and shellfish beds.

The issue of nurdle pollution is worldwide. Across the UK alone, it is estimated that approximately 53 billion pellets could be entering our oceans every year which is the equivalent of 35 tankers full of nurdles being emptied into the sea. Furthermore, a whopping 11.5 trillion (that’s right, I said trillion) nurdles end up in the ocean worldwide every year.

Nurdles on the shore along the River Itchen, Southampton. Image (c) Final Straw Foundation

There is no practical way of removing these pieces of plastic from our oceans and currently, there are no International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules specifically requiring the safe transportation of these plastic pellets across the ocean, despite the risk of spillage and the environmental risks that they pose. Nurdles will remain immortal, spreading a deathly plague to all the incredible creatures that live below the surface unless change happens. The loss of plastic pellets to our environment is preventable. This issue needs to be tackled from the source and a new supply chain approach to pellet loss is needed as well as a better strategy to transport and handle nurdles.

Alongside continuing to educate ourselves on the problem, there are also steps that we as the public can make to join the fight against nurdles and plastic pollution as a whole. One easy way to do this is to reduce or eliminate your plastic use and continue to recycle your plastics appropriately. Additionally, reducing the use of cosmetics that contain microplastics or microbeads is another good starting point. If we can get over ‘the nurdle hurdle’ we could one day see our oceans thriving once again.

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