Ask an expert: What is a nurdle?

PIRG's Beyond Plastic Advocate Kelly Leviker sits down with Jace Tunnell, founder of Nurdle Patrol, to learn more about how these tiny pieces of plastic are having a big negative impact on the environment-- and what we can do to stop it.

Plastic pellets called “nurdles” may be tiny, but they are a big problem. To give us a better understanding of what nurdles are and the scale of the environmental and public health problems they are causing, we sat down with Jace Tunnell from Nurdle Patrol.

Jace became a nurdle expert after coming face-to-face with nurdle pollution in Corpus Christi following a spill in 2018. He consequently founded nurdlepatrol.org, a citizen science project to help streamline efforts to understand where nurdle pollution was happening and where. Jace currently works with the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. 

Q&A with Jace Tunnell from Nurdle Patrol

Below is a short summary of the interview. The quotes in italics are direct quotes from Jace.

“If I had a handful of [nurdles] and the wind is blowing 20 miles an hour, which is typical down here in Corpus Christi, they would just blow out. That’s how lightweight they are.”

Garrick Schmitt | TPIN
Nurdles collected from Raccoon Creek outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Nurdles are small plastic pellets, typically less than 5 mm in size, and they’re the raw material that’s used to make familiar plastic products like water bottles, grocery bags and polystyrene foam.

Nurdles are tiny– they need to be in order for them to be useful within their next stage of the plastic production cycle, where they will be melted within a mold to form an everyday plastic product. They need to be small so that they will melt evenly to be molded effectively. Their size and light weight is also what leads them to get lost so easily within the environment. They get lost in every stage within the plastic supply chain. They get swept into storm drains within the factories where they are made. They spill out of rail cars that transport them. They get lost as they are being transferred to and from distribution hubs. They escape while being bagged for export. They get lost as they are being shipped around the globe. They likewise accidently fall to the floor, attract dust, which renders them useless, within factories manufacturing plastic products.  

Nurdles escaping into the environment has a big effect on wildlife. Birds, turtles, and fish sometimes mistake plastic pellets for food, as they resemble fish eggs or tadpoles. 

Sören Funk | Unsplash.com

“If they eat one or two, they likely just pass through their system. But if they eat enough of them, it can entangle their intestines. It can make them feel like they’re full and then they can’t eat anything natural and they can starve to death.”

But there are other impacts, too.

“Nurdles act like sponges in the environment in terms of harmful chemicals being absorbed to the outside of them.”

In Galveston Bay (Texas) it is prohibited to consume certain fish from the bay, due to high levels of PCBs, known carcinogens.

“We have tested the nurdles there and the nurdles have really high concentrations of PCB levels.” 

Such pollutants bioaccumulate, meaning they become more concentrated as they move up the food chain. When wildlife consume pellets with high concentrations of pollutants, this gets passed along the food chain.

“We are not seeing a reduction in plastic pellets. We’re just seeing an accumulation…We look for two different things with Nurdle Patrol- ‘new strandline’ or the ‘old strandline.’ Over time, you would expect to see less nurdles at the new strandline. The new strandline is where the water has been coming up in the last 24 hours… That could be for a river, lake, or at the beach… if you have a flood in a river, that water line is going to push up on the river bank… once the water recedes, that line would become the old strandline. We would expect to find nurdles there probably forever, unless they’re cleaned up properly in a certain area. But the new strandline, we would expect that to go down, if we were able to stop the plastics industry from discharging plastic pellets into the environment. As of now, we are not seeing that.” 

In 1991, the plastic industry established a voluntary program called Operation Clean Sweep. To date, this industry-led, voluntary program remains the only framework to limit plastic pellet loss. 

“It’s a great program. The problem with the program is that it is a voluntary program… a lot of those things that the Operation Clean Sweep has developed, those should be taken by the state or federal governments and made mandatory… So that way, everybody is on the same page and nobody is getting a pass. There’s accountability for everybody.”

“We know there’s a problem and we know there’s solutions to it. And I’m not going to put this off and I don’t think anybody else wants to put this off to the next generation… There needs to be continuous inspections to make sure [nurdle pollution is] not happening. And then if it does keep happening, there needs to be fines associated with it that match the company that is really going to hit the pocketbook, because that’s how we see change.”

Athel Rogers | Used by permission
U.S. Representative Andrea Salinas takes a look at a sample of nurdles.

We’re so thankful for the work being done at Nurdle Patrol by Jace and others that helps to shine a spotlight on this issue and demonstrate the large scale of this problem.

PIRG is campaigning for a new federal bill, the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which would prohibit the dumping or spilling of plastic pellets from facilities or sources that make, use, package, or transport them. 

Please sign our petition and ask you member of Congress to support the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act today.

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Authors

Kelly Leviker

Beyond Plastic, Advocate, PIRG

Kelly advocates for a world with less plastic pollution. Kelly lives in Denver with her family, where she enjoys hiking, botanical illustration and traveling.

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