Beyond Plastic

Nurdles found in Charleston tidal marsh frequented by migratory birds

1,133 plastic pellets collected in recent waterway cleanup.

Katie Abare, Charleston Surfrider Foundation | Used by permission

On Saturday, PIRG and Environment America partnered with the Charleston Surfrider Foundation to hold a World Migratory Bird Day Nurdle Count and found 1,133 plastic pellets, sometimes called “nurdles,” within the tidal marsh adjacent to the historic old town. It’s clear that plastic pellet pollution continues to threaten waterways in South Carolina.

Nurdles, also known as plastic pellets, are intentionally made as a microplastic and function as the building blocks of plastic manufacturing, an intermediary between a raw material and a completed product. Plastic pellets are estimated to be the second-most common type of primary microplastic — plastics intentionally manufactured to be tiny, not broken-down pieces of larger plastic —  in the ocean by weight.

Saturday’s nurdle count coincided with World Migratory Bird Day to raise awareness of one of the more silent, but growing, forms of human disturbance on birds- microplastics. Birds, including migratory shore birds, sometimes mistake nurdles for food, such as fish eggs or tadpoles. Plastic pellets can also absorb toxic chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, and mercury. These types of pollutants bioaccumulate, meaning they become more concentrated and more toxic as they move up the food chain. 

Nurdles have plagued beaches in and around Charleston for several years. In fact, Charleston has the highest concentration of nurdle pollution outside the Gulf of Mexico. This is largely due to Charleston being a port city and thus its consequential role within the global plastic supply chain.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) represented Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League in a settlement against Frontier Logistics, a nurdle exporter, in 2021. The company was forced to pay $1 million and their facility was forced to relocate. But the pollution still remains. 

And while holding polluters accountable to this pollution is critcally important, we need legislation that prevents plastic pellets from entering our waterways in the first place. A new federal bill could make the nurdle pollution that Charleston, and the rest of the US, is facing explicitly illegal. The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act would prohibit the dumping or spilling of nurdles from facilities or sources that make, use, package or transport them. It’s a common-sense solution to protect our waterways and helps elevate the health of people, wildlife, and our environment over plastic pollution. 

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