Nurdles, or small plastic pellets, are the raw materials for almost all our plastic products. With hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic being created every year globally, trillions of them enter our environment. They measure less than 5mm and can easily be lost by spillage during handling or transportation, becoming a form of pollution, especially in our waterways and in the sea.
Nurdles are highly persistent in the environment and are bio-accumulative, building up in the bodies of fish and other marine life, which can then pass the toxins up the food chain to humans.
There is no suggestion of deliberate pollution by companies, simply the danger of the huge amount of plastic that is transported around the globe and the inherent risks associated with this. Our reliance on plastics and fossil fuels is poisoning the food chain and building up, almost unchecked, into a future environmental crisis.
Harmful to humans?
Often nurdles are mistaken for food by seabirds and fish, which can lead to them dying from starvation, as their plastic-choked stomachs make them believe that they are full.
An additional problem is that nurdles act as sponges, attracting toxic chemicals and pollutants. As the Oregon-based Ocean Blue Project explains: “Nurdles absorb toxins and harmful chemicals like persistent organic pollutants (POP). POPs are toxic chemicals found in the air, water, among others, and they have a profound effect on human health.”
Fish that have eaten nurdles can pass these toxins on to humans when they are eaten, as there is no stage in the process to remove them.
Perhaps not well known is that nurdles are the second-largest source of micropollutants in the ocean by weight and yet by the time that they reach the ocean, the pollution is already impossible to resolve.
“We cannot just rely on volunteers to stem the tide of plastic pollution”
Fidra is an environmental charity, based in Scotland, which aims to work with industries, the public and governments to develop evidence-based solutions for a healthy environment. They have recently returned from COP26 in Glasgow, where they presented international and global solutions to stop pellet pollution at source. I spoke to project officer Megan Kirton, recently seen on Channel 5 outlining the dangers of nurdles. She commented that:
“We are continuing to showcase the results of our latest global citizen science event, The Great Global Nurdle Hunt which took place in October and demonstrated nurdles were found in 91 percent of participating countries. Presenting these results at COP26 in Glasgow was a real opportunity to highlight pellet pollution to international decision makers and shows that this is a widespread global issue that needs action now.
“We can’t keep using energy and fossil fuels to make plastic that ends up in the environment. Nurdle pollution demonstrates plastic is being wasted before it has even been used to make anything, which is a huge waste of resources. We will continue to build our global nurdle network to maintain public pressure and hold industry and government accountable to this issue.”
The Yorkshire impact
With almost 75 percent of coasts around the UK being contaminated with nurdles, much of the Yorkshire coast has not escaped. Nurdles have been discovered at Whitby, Fraisthorpe near Bridlington, and Saltburn. Nurdle pollution has also been found in inland waterways, such as along the River Calder at Castleford.
Organised beach cleans sadly only deal with the symptoms, rather than the underlying problem. Out of 279 shorelines searched around the UK, 205 had been polluted by nurdles. The results from the Great Global Nurdle Hunt were published on 9 November 2021, compiling the data from 48 organisations and over 700 hours of monitoring, and highlighting the persistent problem of microplastics both in the UK and abroad:
“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.”
Solutions and legislation
One of the solutions being investigated is an accreditation process to encourage companies to implement measures across the plastics supply chain. At present, there is no legislation in place in the UK regarding nurdles, causing alarm for environmentalists. Fidra told me:
“Alongside our citizen science work [we] have been exploring the route of Supply Chain Accreditation as a way to stop pellet loss at source which we will continue to work on alongside other [non-governmental organisations]. Through our work we have also learned about a range of approaches other international organisations are working on to end pellet loss.”
Our dependence and reliance on fossil fuels and plastics is causing a significant global environmental impact, and with nurdles being almost impossible to remove from the environment, the problem needs to be tackled at its source.