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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.