The Problem

Nurdles are small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil. Countless billion are used each year to make nearly all our plastic products but many end up washing up on our shores.

Impacts on Wildlife

Like other plastics, nurdles can be mistaken for food by marine wildlife like seabirds, fish, and crustaceans.

Once polluting our environment, they can pose a threat to these creatures and habitats for years to come.

This is because nurdles are tiny, persistent and potentially toxic. Due to their size, and often clear colour, nurdles can look like fish eggs or other small animals which makes them particularly attractive to seabirds, fish and other marine wildlife.

More than 220 marine species have been shown to ingest plastic debris. Plastic can get trapped in an animal's stomach causing ulceration, making them feel full and stopping them eating real food. This can lead to starvation and potentially death. Toxic chemicals can also transfer from microplastic to animals that eat them, causing further harm – another route for these chemicals to enter the food chain.

Image
Photo Credit: Cathy Sexton

Here you can see the similarities between fish roe (or eggs) and the clear or opaque, round nurdles.

Nurdles in Herring Gull pellet
Photo Credit: Maggie Sheddan

Pellets might also have indirect effects on ecosystems; on the beach, microplastics can change the characteristics of sand, such as its temperature and permeability, which can affect animals like sea turtles that incubate their eggs on beaches.

Nurdles can be seen in this herring gull pellet (left) found on the island of Inchkeith; an important seabird nesting site in the Firth of Forth, Scotland. This gull was lucky enough to regurgitate this pellet and remove some of the plastic that it had swallowed; like these nurdles and cotton buds stems.

This infographic shows examples of plastic debris found in wildlife. Hover over the images to find out more about each example.

eaten-by a
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Image credit: Fidra

How big is the problem?

In the UK, over 6000 companies are part of the plastics industry; producing, importing and converting nurdles into plastic products. Across Europe that figure rises to more than 60,000 companies, with plastics production reaching just over 60 million tonnes, in 2018. 

However, the plastics industry and the issue of nurdle pollution is inherently global. Over 350 million tonnes of plastic was produced in 2018, weighing more than the total weight of the human population.

After plastic pellets (or nurdles) are produced they are transported acorss the world in their billions. During each stage of the industrial process, from pellet to product, nurdles are spilt. When not cleaned up properly they can enter our rivers and waterways, eventually reaching our oceans.

Across the UK it is estimated that as many as 53 billion pellets could enter our oceans every year. That’s 35 tankers full being dumped in the seas. Across Europe that number is estimated to rise to as much as 78,000 tonnes of plastic nurdles annually. With the global estimate being close to 230,000 tonnes of nurdles polluting our oceans every year.

That’s billions and billions of nurdles.

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Photo Credit: Tracey Williams / Lego Lost At Sea

How do they end up at sea?

Accidental spills can happen wherever nurdles are handled or transported. This could be at any stage of the industrial process; from the production of nurdles, to their transport, to the manufacturers of plastic products and then again when goods are recycled back into nurdles.

Nurdles are small, light and most float in water so can be easily blown, washed or brushed into drains. When spilt and not cleaned up, nurdles can find their way into our storm drains and are carried straight out to sea. In the sea they spread quickly and widely, and as a result can be found throughout the world, from the middle of the pacific to the arctic circle.

 

Some companies have taken steps to improve the waste management, screening techniques, transportation and handling of nurdles. Many others, mostly unwittingly, continue to pollute our marine environment with nurdles. There are lots of simple ways to stop pellets getting lost, but it’s a constant challenge to make sure all pellets are contained. Even a tiny trickle of pellets from any company can add up to a flood across the whole industry.

Over time pellets can build up on beaches and in sand, affecting ecosystems and wildlife.

This infographic shows the pathways of nurdles into the environment. Hover over the images to find out more about each stage.

lost-at-sea-b
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Image credit: Fidra

Small, smaller, microscopic!

Nurdles are by definition a microplastic, because they are less than 5mm in size. Because they enter the oceans already in microplastic form, they are known as a ‘primary microplastic’. ‘Secondary microplastics’ are formed when larger plastic items break up once at sea.

Although nurdles start out small, over time, like other plastics they will become weathered and fragment into even smaller particles. UV, oxygen, wind and wave action all contribute to making plastic more brittle and causing it to discolour and fragment. In the marine environment, plastics take hundreds to thousands of years to degrade.

As these plastics become smaller, they can be mistaken for food by smaller and smaller animals lower down the food chain. At the size of a grain of sand, plastic particles can be mistaken as food for even tiny animals at the base of our food chain, like plankton. Once eaten, microscopic plastic particles can pass straight into an animal’s blood stream and lodge in their tissues.

Unlike larger pieces of plastic like bottles, nets and bags there is no practical way of removing these nurdles or microplastics from the sea. This is why we need to stop nurdle pollution at source.

Microplastics are increasingly becoming a concern across the world as we gain more knowledge about the impacts, distribution and fate of this debris.

small-plastics-a
 
 
 
Image credit: Fidra

Plastic - A toxic combination

Nurdles can be associated with harmful chemicals.

Plastic is not just one chemical – it’s actually a word that can describe a huge variety of different chemical cocktails. As well as contaminants from the fossil fules they are made from plastics contain additives used to give them certain characteristics, such as a colour, reduced flammability, or increased flexibility.

For example, by weight, up to 75% of PVC can be made up of plasticisers that soften the material. Additives of environmental concern include phthalatesBisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants and organotins. Other chemicals might end up in the plastic unintentionally during production such as per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals are present in pellets and are often more reactive and mobile than the plastic polymer itself and can leach out of the plastic once in the environment.

Once at sea, nurdles and other plastics are known to attract and concentrate chemical contaminants in the sea to their surface. Long lasting harmful chemicals, such as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), have been found on plastic at over 1 million times background levels. Plastic can then transport and becone a potential source of toxic chemicals.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are the name given to some of the most toxic chemicals in use today, they have harmful effects on human health and the environment. These chemicals can build up in animal and human tissue causing long term damage.

Some of the most harmful POPs, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT, are now banned due to the risks they pose to the environment or human health. Although this ban was almost 30 years ago and current manufacture has been reduced, these chemicals continue to persist in the marine environment - PCBs are still at concentrations which are attributed to the continued decline of Orca (Killer Whale) populations worldwide.

The hard surface of a plastic pellet also provides an environment on which biofilms can form. These biofilms can harbour pathogenic microrganisms such as the harmful (to humans) Escherichia coli (E.coli) and Vibrio spp; present on nurdles studied in the Firth of Forth, Scotland.

toxic-combo-a
 
 
 
 
Image credit: Fidra

Did you know?

Plastics are a chemical cocktail. They contain contaminants from the fossil fuels or recycled products used to make plastic (non-intentionally added substances like heavy metals) as well as additives which are used to make plastics colourful, flexible and useable (additives such as dyes, phthalates and plastizers).

Studies of packaging alone found there could be thousands of additives used and 4-6 non-intentionally added substances for every additive.

Nurdle properties

Lightweight

Once in the environment nurdles can be blown into our storm drains and watercourses.

Small

Nurdles can escape from small breaks or holes in the different containers used for their transit.

Mesh used to catch debris in runoff water is often not fine enough to trap nurdles before they get flushed out to sea.

Float

Most nurdles float and so can be carried by rainwater into storm drains.

The sumps in our drainage systems, designed to catch heavier debris, fail to stop floating nurdles whcih are washed out to sea.

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MAKING NURDLES

  • 4% of global oil production is used for plastics, British Plastics Federation (2008)
  • Fossil fuels currently represent 99% of the plastic raw material base, British Plastics Federation (2008)

The process of separating or ‘cracking’ crude oil produces the ethane and propane used to make most plastic.

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MAKING

  • The UK produces around 2,500,000 tonnes of raw plastic material each year, British Plastic Federation (2012)
  • Each tonne of plastic is made up of around 10,000,000 nurdles, Redford (1992), referred to in United States EPA (1992)
  • Global plastic production grew from 99 million tonnes in 1989 to 280 million tonnes in 2011, Plastics Europe (2012)

To make most plastics the ethane and propane produced by cracking are separated by fractionating, heated and converted into ethylene or propylene. These simple molecules can be linked into long chains to form the polymers polyethylene (polythene) and polypropylene.

Each polymer has its own properties depending on its structure and size. The polymer is then moulded into plastic resin pellets or ‘nurdles’ the raw material used to manufacture most plastic products.

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MELTED TOGETHER

  • Plastic processors consume around 4,800,000 tonnes of raw material each year, British Plastic Federation (2012)
  • There are around 3,000 plastic processors in the UK, British Plastic Federation (2012)

Plastics factories buy raw polymers usually in the form of resin pellets or ‘nurdles’. They then use chemical additives such as colours or flame retardants to enhance the plastic’s properties. The mix is then melted and moulded into the final product.

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RECYCLED INTO NURDLES

  • 20% of used plastic is recycled in the UK, Plastics Europe (2012), and is flaked or pelletised for reuse
  • Scotland aims to increase recycling rates to 70% by 2025, Zero Waste (2012)

Where possible different plastic types are separated and recycled back into nurdles which can be reused by the plastics industry.

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SHIPPED AROUND THE WORLD

  • Imports of around 2,300,000 tonnes of raw plastic are required to satisfy current demand in the UK British Plastic Federation (2012)

Demand for nurdles outstrips production in the UK. The shortfall is imported by sea from across the globe but increasingly from the Middle East and Asia.

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FACTORY SPILLS

  • Once spilt nurdles can be lost down storm water drains around the factory building and carried out to sea, United States EPA (1992)
  • Small spills add up to a big environmental problem

Spills of nurdles can happen; during filling or off-loading a bulk vessel; packaging for shipment and from damaged or leaky packaging. Once spilt nurdles can easily escape into every area of the factory and out into the wider environment, United States EPA (1992).

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SPILLS IN TRANSIT

  • Bulk trucks can carry around 2 billion pellets per load, United States EPA (1992)
  • Bulk transporters are often washed down after use. If uncontained nurdles can be flushed straight down drains and out to sea, United States EPA (1992)
  • Unsecured valves can allow nurdles to escape, United States EPA (1992)

Nurdles are transported across the UK by road either in bulk trucks or as individual bags or boxes on pallets.

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SPILLS IN TRANSIT

  • Bulk trucks can carry around 2 billion pellets per load, United States EPA (1992)
  • Bulk transporters are often washed down after use. If uncontained nurdles can be flushed straight down drains and out to sea, United States EPA (1992)
  • Unsecured valves can allow nurdles to escape, United States EPA (1992)

Nurdles are transported across the UK by road either in bulk trucks or as individual bags or boxes on pallets.

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SPILLS IN TRANSIT

  • Bulk trucks can carry around 2 billion pellets per load, United States EPA (1992)
  • Bulk transporters are often washed down after use. If uncontained nurdles can be flushed straight down drains and out to sea, United States EPA (1992)
  • Unsecured valves can allow nurdles to escape, United States EPA (1992)

Nurdles are transported across the UK by road either in bulk trucks or as individual bags or boxes on pallets.

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SPILLS AT SEA

  • In 2012 six shipping containers fell off a freighter spilling 150 tonnes of nurdles into the sea off Hong Kong.

Nurdles spilt during cargo handling at ports or during cargo transport at sea are most likely to end up in the marine environment.

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LOST AT SEA

  • ‘Plastic does not disappear, it does not go away’, Sir David Attenborough (2011)
  • So small, once in the sea nurdles are practically impossible to remove

Storm water drains and watercourses carry nurdles from the source of the pollution on land to the sea. Pollution directly into the marine environment also comes from ships and ports.

Nurdles are now found in the middle of the ocean and on virtually all coastlines around the world. Nobody knows how long nurdles will last in the sea, but it is estimated that a plastic bottle will take 450 years to break up.

Plastic does not disappear and we cannot clean up small plastic once in the sea. Positive action is required to stop any further nurdles pollution of our seas.

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FULMAR
Fulmarus glacialis

  • In the North Sea 95% of 1295 Fulmars studied contained plastic, van Franeker et al. (2011)
  • Between 1999 and 2003 each bird contained an average of 35 pieces of plastic, van Franeker et al. (2011)
  • Since 1982 Fulmars stomach contents have been used as an indicator for marine litter distribution, van Franeker et al. (2011)

Found only on the Island of St Kilda until the 1900s there are now more than half million pairs breeding around the coast of the Britain. These pretty birds feed exclusively at sea on crustaceans, squid, fish and discarded scraps from fishing boats, usually from the surface of the water.

They do not regurgitate their food, except when feeding their chicks so they accumulate plastic in their stomach. As a result Fulmars are used across the globe to provide a snapshot sample of small plastic pollution over large offshore areas.
© whisky golf

Plastic contained in the stomach of one fulmar
© J.A. van Franeker, Wageningen IMARES

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BAR-TAILED GODWIT
Limosa lapponica

  • Birds caught in the Bering Sea shown to contain plastic pieces, Robards et al. (1995)

Over the winter around 38,000 of these wading birds visit the UK. They flock to mudflats and flooded fields where they eat worms, snails and insects.
© Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.de

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BLACK TERN
Chlidonias niger

  • Found to ingest plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)
  • As far back as 1971 nurdles were found in regurgitated Tern pellets around the industrial areas of New York, Hays and Cormons (1974)

This bird used to breed in the UK in very large numbers, but because of habitat loss they now only visit the UK on their way to and from breeding grounds in Europe. When they return to estuaries and coasts after breeding they do not dive for fish like white terns but pick up fish and other prey from the surface of the water whilst on the wing.
© Ómar Runólfsson

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COMMON GULL
Larus canus

  • 25% of Common gulls studied in the Bering Sea contained plastic particles, Robards et al. (1995
  • 76% of all plastic particles found were ‘industrial pellets’, Robards et al. (1995)
  • 25% increase in number of birds affected by plastic pollution between 1988 and 1995, Robards et al. (1995)

The Common gull is in fact quite uncommon and as such has an amber conservation status. They get their name because as well as feeding at sea they also find food on ‘common ground’. They can often be seen marching on the spot imitating the patter of rain which brings worms to the surface.
© Lars Falkdalen Lindahl

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COMMON TERN
Sterna hirundo

  • Found to ingest plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)
  • As far back as 1971 nurdles have been found in regurgitated Tern pellets around New York industrial areas, Hays and Cormons (1974)

These beautiful birds have long tails and so are often called ‘sea swallows’. They arrive in the UK in April and stay until August or September.

They dive into the sea to catch their prey, mainly fish but they also eat molluscs, crustaceans and other invertebrates.
© Tony Hisgett

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CORY’S SHEARWATER
Calonectris diomedea

  • 83% of fledgling birds caught were found to contain plastic, Rodríguez et al. (2012)
  • On average 8 pieces of plastic were retrieved per bird, Rodríguez et al. (2012)

These large birds have a wingspan of over a meter which helps them glide over the sea. They can dive up to 15m in search of prey like fish, squid and crustaceans. They are rarely seen near land but often follow fishing boats waiting for scraps to be thrown overboard.

A very recent study has shown that there is a widespread pattern of Cory’s Shearwater parents feeding fledglings plastics (Rodríguez et al. 2012).
© Artie Kopelman

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GANNET
Morus bassanus

  • Bird ingested and subsequently starved to death as a result of plastic ingestion, Pierce et al. (2004)

As adults these elegant birds are bright white with black wingtips making them difficult to mistake. In search of fish, they dive into the sea from around 25m up reaching speeds 60 miles per hour as they break the surface. They breed in very large colonies or rookeries. The locations of these colonies are so uncommon that they are an amber list species.

Although reports of plastic ingestion in this species are relatively scarce entanglement in plastic debris is common. Many birds have been found at sea ensnared in derelict fishing gear. Gannets also use plastic fragments particularly lost fishing nets and line to line its nest, adults and chicks can then get entangled and die, Laist (1997).
© Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.de

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GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL
Larus marinus

  • Shown to ingest plastic, Day et al. (1985) referred to in Laist (1997)

The largest of the gulls and bigger than a buzzard it is a top predator. There is not much that it will not eat, from fish caught far out to sea to small mammals, other birds. It has adapted well to human behaviour and is a familiar presence in cities. However it is still chiefly a seabird and its numbers are highest close to the coast, particularly during the breading season.
© Robert Eliassen

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GREAT SHEARWATER
Puffinus gravis

  • 90% of birds studied contained plastic, Ryan (1987)
  • 79 pieces of plastic were retrieved from one birds, Ryan (1987)

Although only a visitor to the UK they can be seen frequently in Ireland and the South West of Britain from July to September.

They use a cushion of air to glide over the surface of the sea their wings almost touching or ‘shearing’ the surface. They feed mostly on small fish and squid which they plunge dive for or more normally catch from the surface.

Nurdles retrieved from these birds were tested for highly toxic persistent organic pollutants. The results supported the fact that plastic is a significant source of exposure to these harmful chemicals (Colabuono et al. 2010)
© Patrick Coin

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GUILLEMOT
Uria aalge

  • Birds caught had ingested plastic, Robards et al. (1995)

The UK has a population of around 1.3million Guillemots. Breeding on sheer cliffs around the coast they are one of the most frequent birds in our great ‘seabird cities’. They spend most of their time at sea and can dive to depths of 60m to catch fish.

Guillemots are not too susceptible to plastic ingestion as they dive for food, however in Subarctic Alaska, one of the most pristine environments in the world; these birds had been found ingesting plastic.
© Ómar Runólfsson

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KITTIWAKE
Rissa tridactyla

  • 10% of the Kittiwakes captured contained plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)
  • On average 2.5 pieces were retrieved from each bird containing plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)

These graceful birds can be seen nesting in noisy colonies on the cliffs around coast. Once they have reared their young they head back out into the Atlantic. They feed by grabbing food from the surface of the sea or plunge diving to catch prey just below the surface. They eat mainly fish and in Scotland there has been a significant decline in their population because, it is thought, of a shortage of sand eels.
© Michael Haferkamp

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LEACH’S STORM-PETREL
Oceanodroma leucorhoa

  • More than 50% of birds collected on St Kilda contained plastic, Furness (1985)
  • On average 3 nurdles were retrieved from each bird found containing plastic, Furness (1985)
  • 50% of birds caught in Subarctic Alaska had ingested plastic, Robards et al. (1995)

Despite being about the size of a starling these birds can live for a very long time, a 36 year old bird was once recorded.

They spend most of their time at sea where they feed on plankton, small fish, molluscs and crustaceans. They breed on remote islands off the West coast of Scotland and only come on to land after dark to avoid being attacked by predators.
© U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Schlawe C.

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LITTLE AUK
Alle alle

  • Birds studied shown to ingest plastic, van Franeker (1983) referred to in Laist (1997)

These hardy little birds breed in the arctic, and then spend winter in the North Atlantic. Outside of their breeding season they spend long periods of time floating around on the strong ocean currents, and are only seen when blown towards land during strong gales. Their body shape allows them to be very effective at diving for tiny marine crustaceans reaching depths of 35 metres.
© Michael Haferkamp

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MANX SHEARWATER
Puffinus puffinus

  • 30% of birds collected on Rhum contained plastic, Furness (1985)
  • On average 3 grams of plastic recovered from each of the birds containing plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)

Almost 300,000 pairs breed in the UK, mainly on the West Coast. Their unusual call scared Norse sailors who believed that the Island of Rhum was inhabited by Trolls. They are an incredibly long lived bird and one individual thought to be at least 55 years old and nesting in Northern Ireland was pronounced the oldest living wild bird in the world. They feed on small fish, crustaceans and squid and often home in on feeding marine mammals that bring shoals of fish to the surface.
© Matt Witt

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PUFFIN
Fratercula arctica

  • 20 pellets recovered from one bird, Harris and Wanless (1994)
  • 13% of birds collected from UK seas contained plastic pellets, elastic or nylon thread, Harris and Wanless (1994)
  • Since 1972 Puffins from the North Sea have been found to ingest plastic, Parslow and Jefferies (1972) referred to in Laist (1997)

The Puffin is one of the world’s favourite birds and the UK is home to around 579,000 pairs during breeding season. They spend the winter months on their own in the open ocean and are difficult to find so their life at sea is still a bit of a mystery.

They are very proficient divers using their wings like paddles and their feet like rudders as they catch fish.

Puffins are often used to monitor the health of an ecosystem, as they are high up the food chain and so accumulate higher levels of toxins in their tissues.
© Mark Medcalf

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SOOTY SHEARWATER
Puffinis griseus

  • 75% of birds sampled contained plastic, Blight and Burger (1997)
  • 23 pieces of plastic were found in one bird, Blight and Burger (1997)
  • Nurdles made up 34% of plastics found in birds examined, Ryan (1987)

These birds are only visitors to our shores during their truly epic 8,700 miles migrations. They travel from their breeding ground in the Falkland Island up the West coast of the Atlantic to the ocean ending their journey around Norway. They pass the UK on their return journey down the East Coast of the Atlantic.

They can dive down to 65m in search of prey, but mainly take food from the surface making them particularly susceptible to feeding on floating plastic debris.
© JJ Harrison

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STORM PETREL
Hydrobates pelagicus

  • birds studied shown to ingest plastic, van Franeker (1983) referred to in Laist (1997)

Sailors thought these birds were a sign of impending storms, and were sometimes believed to be the souls of sailors lost at sea.

Petrels are the smallest seabirds, about the size and shape of a house martin. To avoid being eaten by larger animals they are strictly nocturnal only coming back to land to feed chicks under cover of darkness.

Feeding mainly on plankton and small fish, its feet patter on the water as it flutters down to pick up food from the surface of the sea.
© A Rocha / Rob Thomas

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ACORN BARNACLE
Semibalanus balanoides

  • Acorn barnacles readily ingest microplastics, Thompson et al. (2004)

Charles Darwin was fascinated by barnacles, and much of what is known about them is because of his studies. Acorn barnacles are very common and live in the intertidal zone where they can grow up to 15mm in diameter. When they are covered by the tide they open and use their feathery cirri filters to catch food like zooplankton from the sea. Although they have a tough exterior, they are eaten by other sea creatures like sea slugs, whelks and some fish.

An early scientific study was carried out to establish if marine filter feeders ingest microscopic plastics. The study showed ingestion of microplastics within a few days of exposure. (Thompson et al. 2004)
© I F Smith

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ATLANTIC COD
Gadus morhua

  • Plastics listed as ‘Prey Item’ in the UK fish stomach content analysis, Pinnegar and Platts (2011) referenced in Leslie et al. (2011)

A favourite for making fish and chips, Atlantic cod can grow up to 2m in length and live for 25 years. They eat a wide variety of food from worms to fish the size of a herring. They are now labelled as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
© Patrick Gijsbers

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ATLANTIC HORSE MACKEREL
Trachurus trachurus

  • 16 of the 56 mackerel caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average 1.5 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

This fish gets its name from a folk tale that smaller fish rode on its back to travel long distances. They congregate in large schools near the coast where they feed on crustaceans, squid and other fishes. One of the important schooling areas for these fish is in the seas around the Hebrides.
© Rob Spray 2013 www.1townhouses.co.uk

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ATLANTIC SEA SCALLOP
Placopecten magellanicus

  • Like many bivalves, this species readily ingests microscopic polystyrene, Brillant and MacDonald (2000)
  • Lighter polystyrene beads were retained longer in the gut than heavier glass beads of the same size, Brillant and MacDonald (2000)

In Scotland the scallop is the second most valuable shellfish caught. Like all scallops the Atlantic sea scallop is a filter feeder living mainly on sandy or gravel sea beds where it feeds on plankton.

Like all filter feeders they are well known for accumulating toxins.
© Dann Blackwood

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BLUE MUSSEL
Mytilus edulis

  • Ingested microscopic polystyrene particles move from the mussel’s gut into the circulatory system, Browne et al. (2008)
  • Nano particles which had collected on the plastics surface also move from the gut into the circulatory system, Browne et al. (2008)
  • Plastic particles persisted in the circulatory system for over 48 days, Browne et al. (2008)

Blue mussels are extremely common around the coast of the UK where they feed on plankton, bacteria and detritus which they filter from the sea. They are not only one of our favourite seafoods, but are also eaten by whelks, crabs, sea urchins and oyster catchers.

Blue mussels are often chosen in scientific studies because of their high filtration rate resulting in the accumulation of high levels of toxins in their tissues.
© OCEANA/Carlos Minguell

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BLUE WHITING
Micromesistius poutassou

  • 52% of the Whiting caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

This member of the Cod family is found around the coast of the UK and can grow up to 70cm in length. This fish is not usually sold fresh but processed into fish meal and oil. Because the stocks are below safe biological limits in the UK it is currently a UK priority species.
© OCEANA

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COMMON DRAGONET
Callionymus lyra

  • 38% of these fish caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average 1.5 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

These stunning fish are widespread around the UK using their fins to claim territory and display to females. They are usually found partially buried in sand or gravel where they prey on worms, crustaceans and molluscs, especially cockles.
© Hans Hillewaert

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GREY GURNARD
Eutrigla gurnardus

  • Plastics listed as ‘Prey Item’ in the UK fish stomach content analysis, Pinnegar and Platts (2011) referenced in Leslie et al. (2011)

A member of the ‘Sea Robin’ family these fish produce a croaking sound when they are competing for food. Although not sold fresh they are processed into fish meal.
© Geir Friestad

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JOHN DORY
Zeus faber

  • 48% of the John Dory caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average over 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Also known as Peter’s fish after its association with Saint Peter, the John Dory lives near the seabed where it eats schooling fish like sardines and can grow up to 3kg in weight. The spot on its sides are used to flash an ‘evil eye’ if danger approaches. The spot can also be used to confuse prey allowing them to be sucked into its big mouth.
© Sue Daly

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LANGOUSTINE
Nephrops norvegicus

  • 85% of the langoustine caught in the Clyde Estuary contained microplastic in their gut, Murray and Cowie (2011)

Also known as the Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn and scampi the langoustine is the most important commercial crustacean in Europe. They prefer living in muddy seabed sediment where they build burrows. They come out at night to feed mainly on worms and fish.
© Hans Hillewaert

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LUGWORM
Arenicola marina

  • Lugworms readily ingest microplastics, Thompson et al. (2004)
  • There is a positive relationship between plastic uptake and weight loss in Lugworms, Besseling et al. (2013)

These worms are rarely seen except when dug for bait by fishermen, but their casts are a familiar sight on our beaches. They live in burrows where they filter sand for food, growing up to 23cm in length.
© Omar Ahned

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ORANGE FOOTED SEA CUCUMBER
Cucumaria frondosa

  • Not only does this animal readily feed on microscopic plastic but also ingested PVC pellets, Graham and Thompson (2009)
  • 34 PVC pellets were ingested at one feeding, Graham and Thompson (2009)
  • This animal probably selects plastic over sand to ingest, Graham and Thompson (2009)

This is one of the most widespread species of sea cucumber but in the UK it is found only around the Orkney and Shetland Isles. It often lives amongst the kelp where it uses is 10 bushy tentacles to catch food from the surrounding seawater.
© Ryan Murphy

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POOR COD
Trisopterus minutus

  • 40% of the Poor cod caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average around 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Poor cod is one of the most abundant fish around the UK. They live in small shoals feeding mainly on little fish and crustaceans like prawn, shrimp and crab. Although not often eaten by us, they are caught commercially and made into fish meal. They are also an important food for fish like Atlantic cod, whiting and hake as well as larger animals like seals, whales and dolphins.
© Paul Newland

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RED BAND FISH
Cepola macrophthalma

  • Of 62 Red band fish caught for a study in UK seas 20 contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average over 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found with plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

This mysterious fish is often found in deep water. They live mainly in vertical burrows where they can hide and ambush prey.
© Biodiversity library

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RED GURNARD
Aspitrigla cuculus

  • 50% of the Red gurnard caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average almost 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

This fish uses its finger like projections under its gills to ‘feel’ for small fish and crustaceans in the sediment. Although not commonly eaten, because its numbers are reasonably high it is being supported as an alternative to over -fished species from around the UK.
© Jim Anderson

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SANDHOPPER
Orchestia gammarellus

  • Sandhoppers readily ingest microplastics, Thompson et al. (2004)

A common sight on our beaches, Sand Hoppers spend most of their time buried in the sand or usually under seaweed. If disturbed by shore birds or humans they hop around randomly to escape from danger.
© R J Wesley

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SHORE CRAB
Carcinus maenas

  • A 2013 scientific study has shown the natural transfer of microplastics from mussels to shore crabs, Farrell and Nelson (2013)
  • “This study increases concern for the potential for microplastic to reach higher trophic levels, for the accumulation of environmental pollutants and for the health of animals, including humans.” Farrell and Nelson (2013)

This is the most common crab around British shores and is often found in rock pools and shallow waters. They are an aggressive species and as a result of fighting one in ten will be missing a claw. They prey on most animals that they encounter including oysters, mussels and small crustaceans.
© Hans Hillewaert

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WHITING
Merlangius Merlangus

  • Plastics listed as ‘Prey Item’ in the UK fish stomach content analysis , Pinnegar and Platts (2011) referenced in Leslie et al. (2011)
  • Whiting caught in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average over 1.5 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Once considered a cheap fish only eaten by the poor and pets it is now commercially important. It looks very similar to its larger relatives cod and haddock and is found mainly around the South and West of the British Isles.
© Hakon

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YELLOW SOLE
Buglossidium luteum

  • 26% of the Yellow sole caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average at least one piece of plastic was retrieved from each fish, Lusher et al. (2013)

This small flat fish grows to a maximum 15cm in length and is often found half buried in the mud or sand of the sea bed. It feeds on a variety of crustaceans, molluscs and worms and is in high abundance in the English Channel.
© Hans Hillewaert

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Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane and DDE, DDD

DDT was used to control malaria and typhus during WWII by killing the insects carrying the disease. After the war it was commonly used as an agricultural pesticide. Its use was banned in the UK in 1984 after its toxic effects on animals and humans were understood.

High exposure to DDT and its metabolites DDE and DDD affect the central nervous system. These substances have been designated as potential carcinogens. Concentration of these chemicals up the food chain has been linked to gender abnormalities.

Although banned in many nations because of its toxicity and its persistence in the environment, DDT is still used in some developing countries to control malaria.

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Polychlorinated biphenyl

PCBs have a wide variety of uses mainly as electrical insulators and industrial coolants. The toxic effects of PCBs on animals were first noticed in the 1970s when the emaciated bodies of seabirds with high PCB levels were washed up on beaches. The toxic and mutagenic effects of PCBs continue to be investigated. However it seems that the chemicals interfere with the hormones in the body causing cancer and developmental abnormalities in animals.

PCBs were completely banned in the UK in 2000, but it is estimated that the total global production of PCBs remains around 1.5 million tonnes.

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Hexachlorocyclohexane

Widely used in the 1960s and 70s in the UK HCH was mainly used as the timber insecticide Lindane. The use of HCH has been controlled in the UK, but it persists in the marine environment and builds up in the bodies of fish. It is estimated that worldwide between 4 and 7 million tonnes have been released into the environment.

HCH isomers are toxic to humans at high levels, and animal studies indicate a range of effects including neurotoxicy, infertility and hormone disruption. HCH is considered a probable carcinogen.

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Nonylphenol ethoxylates

These chemicals have a wide variety of uses, but are added to plastics and rubber as stabilisers. Once in the marine environment these NPEs leach out and break down into NPs that are very harmful and persistent in the environment. They are particularly toxic to aquatic animals and birds. Accumulating in their fatty tissues at high levels NPs are thought to mimic animal hormones, interfering with the development of the reproductive system.

Although there are some pollution protection controls NPEs are still manufactured and used; however at an international level the OSPAR convention has recommended that the manufacture of these chemicals be phased out.

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UV, OXYGEN AND WAVES

nurdlesExposure to ultraviolet radiation and oxygen causes plastics to become yellow, brittle and crack.  The motion of the sea, particularly on the shore, breaks these weak plastics into smaller and smaller pieces.

New nurdles compared to those collected from a Scottish beach. Over time fragmentation causes the discolouration of clear and white nurdles.

Image: © Cathy Sexton

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PLANKTON?

nurdlesAs nurdles and other plastics break down they start to resemble plankton and are ingested by filter feeders like mussels.

Microplastics the size of a grain of sand.

Image: © 5 gyres

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MICROSCOPIC!

nurdlesRecent scientific studies have shown that once ingested, microscopic plastics can move from an animal’s digestive system straight into their circulatory system. These tiny pieces of plastic can get lodged in their cells.

0.5 mm fluorescent microspheres on a gill lamella of a crab sampled at 1 h_200 magnification.

Image: © Paul Farrell

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