Have you ever heard of Nurdles? I hadn’t until relatively recently, but we really should be talking about them! If you have ever been to our beaches, you would have almost certainly seen them.
What is a Nurdle?
These little plastic pellets are no larger than a lentil, less than 5mm in diameter. In essence, this makes them a microplastic particle.
Nurdles are produced to be the raw material for many common plastics around the world, where they are melted down and mixed with other substances. This mix is then used to create day-to-day plastic objects, from bottles and food packaging, to the very clothes we wear! Most of the plastic objects we use today begins its life as a nurdle.
These tiny beads can be made of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and other plastics. They are then often mixed with other contaminants for certain properties. Many of these additives contain chemicals that can cause further harm to the environment. They also include compounds from fossil fuels that are mixed with these nurdles during their production.
Nurdles in the Ocean
These little nurdles likely began appearing in the sea since the 1950s, when plastic production hit its first big boom. Due to our growing use of plastic in recent years, the problem has been getting astronomically worse! Recent estimates across the UK alone suggest that as many as 53 billion pellets could enter our oceans every year! Roughly equivalent to 35 tankers full of nurdles being dumped into the sea directly.
But how do they get into our seas?
Most commonly this is via cargo ships, where the loss of a container can easily introduce millions of nurdles into the water. Sometimes “Big Spill” events occur when an entire ship, or multiple cargo containers are lost, which causes immense environmental damage.
One recent example is the in 2021, which caught fire and lost its cargo off the coast of Sri-Lanka, spilling 1680 tonnes of Nurdles into the sea!
Its not just at sea that nurdles escape into the environment. Due to their small size, they can be lost in small or large quantities all along the entire production line, from truck transport, to factory floors. Also, being less than 5mm in diameter, it allows them to float. So even if spilled or lost on land, they find their way into rivers, drains and sewage. Often leading them straight to our seas.
Being essentially ready-made microplastics, these nurdles have the same catastrophic repercussions of other microplastics. They are often mistaken as food particles by marine life, killing organisms through painful ulceration, gastrointestinal blockages or, even potential poisoning. These problems are then passed up the food chain in marine ecosystems.
Nurdles are particularly dangerous as they look very similar to fish eggs, an essential food source for many marine species!
As with any other plastic in the ocean, nurdles release harmful chemicals into the water as they breakdown. These chemicals are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which are hazardous to our health and the environment. They have been found on oceanic plastic at over 1 million times greater than background levels. Since many nurdles float, they concentrate these chemicals in the water closer to the surface.
Making transporting nurdles more robust
More needs to be done by organisations responsible for transporting nurdles. The International Maritime organisation (IMO) needs to mitigate the risk of accidents.
Norway has proposed that nurdles are identified as a harmful substance and classified as a Marine pollutant according to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code. Stricter classification of nurdles as a cargo would mean that these pellets are transported more carefully at sea – like other dangerous substances. This could include stricter handling rules, labelling, below-deck storage and disaster response protocols. Hopefully, some of these suggestions are close to being agreed, as the IMO’s sub-committee for Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR) met in 2023 and favourably responded to these suggestions, although we are awaiting further details as to what is next.
Manufacturers must also ensure that the lost nurdles from the production line are suitably gathered and disposed of as with other hazardous waste. Although regulations such as these would likely require the co-operation of international legislators.
Until then, raising awareness on this issue is crucial, as we can only begin to tackle these big problems if they are in the public eye!