How to find nurdles in your local waterway

You can help build support for reducing plastic pellet pollution by hosting a nurdle clean-up or count. Here's everything you need to know.

Garrick Schmitt | TPIN
PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur finding plastic pellets, or "nurdles," in Raccoon Creek

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.

These tiny plastics are frequently spilled, leaked or dumped into the environment, especially our waterways, during manufacturing and transport. As a result, an estimated 10 trillion plastic pellets now enter our oceans each year, making them the second-largest source of marine microplastic by weight. 

Plastic pellets in the environment, especially waterways, threaten wildlife and public health. Animals may mistake nurdles for fish eggs or tadpoles, and if they ingest enough plastic they can starve. The pellets can also absorb harmful chemicals like DDT, PCBs, and mercury.

How do we solve this problem?

Companies shouldn’t be allowed to pollute our waterways with plastic pellets. We’re working in communities across the country to build support for a bill in Congress called the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which would help prevent plastic pellet pollution from ending up in our waterways.

To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, volunteers across America are hosting nurdle count and clean up events at their local waterway to help identify where this pollution is happening and make the case for action.

You can help by hosting an event in your local community. Nurdle counts can be as quick as 10 minutes. Our guide below, compiled in partnership with Earth Day Network and with advice from the Great Nurdle Hunt and Nurdle Patrol, can help get you started.

Garrick Schmitt | TPIN
PennEnvironment and Three Rivers Waterkeeper find nurdles in the Ohio River

Guide to a successful nurdle count or clean-up event

Picking a location

Nurdles can be found anywhere, but are found in the highest abundance near facilities that produce, transport, transfer, or use them. Nurdles lost on land will likely eventually find their way to waterways. For that reason, they are most commonly found on riverbanks, lake shores, and beaches near facilities that handle them, but they can also be found near train tracks. If you are looking around a facility that handles nurdles, you are most likely to find them near the drainage points, the points of lowest elevation. Since they are small and lightweight, they can also be blown around and get trapped in sheltered cracks and crevices.

How to do a nurdle hunt

A nurdle hunt can be as simple as going out and looking for nurdles. However, you can also include the data from this work within a citizen science project, such as Nurdle Patrol  or Fidra.  These projects are helping to create a broader understanding of the extent and depth of the issue of nurdle pollution. The difference between the two sites is that Nurdle Patrol has a scientific method behind its data which can be used in litigation, while Fidra is more flexible.

Participation in these citizen science efforts is easy. Simply record the following information: 

  • How many people were looking?
  • How many nurdles were found? 
  • How long did it take to find that amount?
  • Where were you?
  • What was the date of your nurdle hunt? 
  • Report your findings to either Nurdle Patrol or to Fidra!

If you choose to report your data to Nurdle Patrol, you will need to look for 10 minutes and you will start timing after you find your first nurdle. If you find a lot of nurdles in a single location, we would love to know about it. Please, also let us know by filling out this form.

If you are near a waterbody, start your search at the new strand line, the stretch of debris left behind when the high tide recedes. You may need to scratch around a bit, as the nurdles can be hidden amongst the debris. If you are not finding nurdles within the new strand line, look within the old strand line, which is a line of debris left behind slightly higher up. This strand line was left by a more extreme high-tide event in the past. New strand lines show the high-tide line within a daily ebb and flow cycle. If you don’t find nurdles, this is also useful data and should still be recorded. Nurdle Patrol has recorded helpful videos on how to do nurdle hunts: on the beach and by a river.

Be prepared to get low and go slow!

What to look for

Nurdles are round, typically 2-5mm (size of a lentil), and come in all different colors. All nurdles are microplastic, but not all microplastics are nurdles. Please don’t include other types of microplastic in your count, but please do clean up all types of plastic from our environment!

Nurdle Identification Chart
Yes – Please count and pick up No – DON’T count, DO pick up
  • 2 – 5mm
  • Hard, smooth plastic
  • Disk/lentil shaped
  • Clear/opaque or various colors
  • Secondary microplastic, typically irregular shaped
  • BB gun pellets
  • Expanded polystyrene (‘squishy’ plastic)
  • Biobeads (gray, rigid surface)

Tips for a successful hunt

If you are looking near a waterbody, it is best to look during low tide. Since nurdles are small and lightweight, they can also be blown around and trapped in sheltered cracks and crevices. You can also search for nurdles in the following places:

  • Paths: Along the perimeter of beaches and waterways, nurdles get trapped in sheltered tracks. 
  • Headlands of a sandy beach: Debris often collects at the far corners of a beach. It is easier to see nurdles on a sandy beach, not that they don’t accumulate on rocky ones too!
  • Vegetation: Grasses and other plants can trap nurdles within their roots.
  • Train tracks: The areas adjacent to train tracks are often privately owned and oncoming trains can be dangerous. Extra care should be taken with such nurdle hunts and present multiple risks.

Safety and Equipment 

Weather and Clothing

Make sure you are dressed in proper attire for your day of nurdle hunting. You might be near a body of water and on uneven surfaces so make sure you wear proper clothing and the right shoes. 

Safety

  • Beware of tides, waves, and currents
  • Go with a group or let someone know where you will be

What to Bring

  • A container for the nurdles is a must. Try to reuse old containers!
  • Hand sanitizer and Gloves – nurdles may have absorbed harmful chemicals and so you might want to protect your skin (optional)
  • Tweezers – if needed to remove individual nurdles (optional)
  • Sieve – separate sand from plastic (optional)

Report your data 

Report your data to either Nurdle Patrol or to Fidra. If there are too many to count, visually estimate. If you find none, that is still important to track!

If you find a lot of nurdles in a single location, we would love to know about it. Please, also let us know by filling out this form.

Katie Abare, Charleston Surfrider Foundation | Used by permission

What to do with your nurdles

Unfortunately, like many types of plastic, nurdles are not recyclable. Therefore, if you want to dispose of them, place them in a sealed bag or container before putting them into the garbage to ensure that they do not get lost into the environment a second time. A container that is already being disposed of would be optimal. 

Alternatively, you can find creative uses for them: 

  • Reach out to your representatives and ask for tougher legislation regarding nurdle pollution. Tell the story of your nurdle hunt, and show or give the nurdles to your representatives. 
  • Put them on display to raise awareness
  • Donate them to research
  • Create art or give to local artists

Make your voice heard

To help stop this pollution from happening in the first place, sign our petition to Congress, urging them to pass the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act.

Topics
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.

Lisa Frank

Executive Director, Environment America; Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network

Lisa leads Environment America’s work for a greener, healthier world. She also directs The Public Interest Network’s Washington, D.C., office and operations. A pragmatic idealist, Lisa has helped win billions of dollars in investments in clean energy and transportation and developed strategic campaigns to protect America’s oceans, forests and public lands. Lisa is an Oregonian transplant to the Capital region, where she loves hiking, running, biking, and cooking for friends and family.

Taylor Brumagin

Environment America Intern