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Noxious Nurdles

What on earth is a nurdle?

Nurdles are small plastic pellets, about the same size as a lentil. They are used all around the world to manufacture most of the plastic products that we use in our daily lives through a process called injection moulding (see diagram below). From bottles to buckets and all the containers, toys, plastic bags and car components in between, all of these products start life as a tiny plastic granule. 

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Over 350 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide every year, that’s more than the total weight of the human population … that’s also a lot of nurdles!

 

So why are they on the beach?

 A huge issue with nurdles, is in their transportation. A British made bucket and spade might be made in your home town, but the plastic pellets used to make them could be produced as far away as Asia. From their initial production, those nurdles have a long journey ahead of them, with a lot of stops en-route, and incidentally a lot of opportunities for them to be spilt.

While large container ship spills like the one in Durban, South Africa in 2017 are shocking, they are not rare. And potentially more concerning is an estimate that in the UK alone over 53 billion pellets could be entering our oceans every year. That’s equivalent to 35 tankers full being dumped into our oceans!

Accidental spills can happen at any stage in the life cycle of plastic. From the manufacture of the nurdle itself, to its transportation, manufacture into a plastic product and then again when it is turned back into a nurdle if the end product is recycled. Because nurdles are so small, light and buoyant, they easily end up in our storm drains which lead into the sea.

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Nurdles are classed as a primary microplastic (because they start off smaller than 5mm instead of being broken down to this size). However, like any other plastic, through UV rays, wave and weather action, nurdles will still be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces over time.

Why does it matter?

Tiny plastics, like nurdles can be difficult for fish and birds to distinguish from their real food sources. This means they are easily ingested, and can then cause a whole myriad of health problems for the animal involved. As plastics are not digestible, they can build up in the stomach and block the animals digestive tract, preventing them from taking on the food they need to survive. When the animal dies, the plastics within them are once again released into the environment, and the whole cycle is allowed to start again.

Aside from being ingested by wildlife (and potentially us-further up the food chain), another concern with plastic pellets is their ability to attract and harbour Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s). These are harmful chemicals, some of which, despite being banned decades ago due to their extreme toxicity, still exist in our waterways and oceans. Nurdles themselves contain a multitude of noxious chemicals to begin with. Combine this with a coating of POP and add a nasty biofilm of E-coli to the mix, and that single nurdle becomes a complete environmental catastrophe!

PERSISTANT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS (POPS)

DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) – Used in World War 2 to control Typhus and Malaria, and then as a pesticide. Because of its toxic effect on animals and humans, the UK banned its use in 1984.
• NPEs (Nonylphenol ethoxylates) – This is a stabilising agent that is mixed with plastic and rubber. It is extremely harmful to both sea life and birds, and thought to interfere with reproductive hormones.
HCH (Hexachlorocyclohexane) – This was used in the 1960s and 70s in the timber industry as an insecticide. Toxicity from HCH builds up over time in fish, and It has also now been labelled as carcinogenic .
• PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl) – Used in electrical wiring and as an industrial coolant, PCBs have been known to be toxic since the 1970s!

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how can you help?

If you come across a patch of nurdles along the coast and decide to pick some up, only do this if you have gloves and something to contain them in (not your pocket though). POPs and E-coli are not things to mess with! While it’s great to try and remove them from the environment, it’s also an impossible task to remove them all.

Go on a Nurdle Hunt

Report your nurdle discovery to The Great Nurdle Hunt. They have already received nearly 6000 reports of plastic pellets along our coastlines. The data they collect is being used to create a map of pollution hot spots, and help influence big decision makers to take proper action against nurdle spills. 

Stemming the tide on nurdle pollution is mostly down to better waste management and drain filtering systems being adopted by all the companies who handle plastic pellets.  Fidra are working on exactly this. They are working with trade and manufacturing associations, suppliers and big decision makers to establish mandatory regulations better reporting around plastic pellet management and loss.  

Manufacturers will only supply what we demand.

Reducing our consumption of single use plastics as individuals will both reduce the risk of nurdle spillage, and also put much needed pressure on businesses to cut back on pointless plastics. 

Once spilt, nurdles are likely there to stay, but whatever we can do to help is definitely worth the effort!

Key Facts

  • Nurdles are small plastic pellets, about the same size as a lentil. They are used all around the world to manufacture most of 350 million tonnes of plastic products that we produce every year.
  • You can fit about 300 nurdles on a single tablespoon!
  • Because they are so small, light and buoyant, nurdles are easily spilt and wash down through storm drains that lead into the sea.
  • Nurdles can appear as an appealing meal to wildlife like birds and fish, but cannot be digested, so cause a host of health problems, sometimes resulting in death.
  • Our plastic consumption is only growing. In the UK alone, an estimated 53 billion nurdles are lost into the environment every year, making them commonplace in our oceans and coastlines. Once lost, they are near on impossible to remove completely.
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