Plastic Pollutes Our Oceans Pre-Production, Let Alone Post-Consumerism

I am a tiny object with a large presence; collectively our miniscule pieces are used to manufacture almost all of your plastic possessions. Do you know what I am? For most of us, the answer is no, yet every day we promote the use of nurdles and expose the ocean to this tiny terror which wreaks havoc under the waves. Nurdles is the misleadingly cute name for pre-production plastic pellets that pose an extraordinary pollution threat, totalling a colossal 10% of beached plastic fragments.

Pre-production pellets are the raw material for all the plastic goods we buy today, forming the building blocks for our computer keyboards, children’s toys and water bottles. These 3-5 millimetre spheres are often mass produced by a few companies before being shipped or driven to plastic manufacturers. This whole process of moving tiny products which can easily slip through the cracks means that, well, many do slip through the cracks of bags, boxes and containers whilst being poured, transferred and shifted. Until the 1990s, businesses were relatively oblivious to any environmental harm this may be causing, just like much of society, as the loss of a fraction of these pellets did not dent their economic prosperity. By leaving these escapees on factory floors or in outside loading areas, it meant they were at the mercy of the rain which washes them without hesitation into drains or waterways which eventually wind their way down into the ocean. However, with today’s environmental knowledge and increasing activism, beached nurdles are often a sign of lazy management practices. In the UK alone, 53 billion tonnes of nurdles are spilt each year, the equivalent of 88 million plastic bottles.

Most of the nurdles which nestle themselves amongst our seaweeds escape into the environment gradually from the odd small spill or incidental leakage from a variety of factories. Yet only the major events reach our headlines. For example, in 2017 a container holding 49 tonnes of plastic pellets was washed off a ship in Durban, South Africa after a freak hurricane hit the local port. Within days, nurdles were found washing up on beaches over 1,000 kilometres away, threatening to cross the ocean border into Mozambique. Beaches of sand were replaced by shores of nurdles but the power of local organisations managed to remove an estimated 25% of these convicts within six months of the disaster. While this recaptured 11 tonnes may sound positive, much of the rest is unlikely to be recovered as they travel off around the globe, only to be broken into smaller and smaller pieces but never to disappear completely, making these spill events even more treacherous than an oil spill.

Once in our ocean, nurdles pose a particularly imminent threat as they are already the perfect sized snack for sea birds such as fulmar who mistake these intruders as fish eggs, leaving one fulmar in the North Sea to be discovered with 273 pellets filling its stomach. This artificial lunch makes marine species feel full when in reality, the essential nutrients needed for growth are replaced by a cocktail of chemicals which the plastic has picked up along its travels. Many of these chemicals are now banned on land but still persist under the ocean surface as a legacy of our industrialisation and commercialisation. Nurdles can even come back around to harm us as pellets floating in Scottish bathing waters have been found to carry the bacteria for E-Coli. It’s no wonder that these pesky plastics have been named ‘mermaids’ tears’ as they continue to take over our oceans from its true natural wonders.

All this sounds like a much too big an issue for us to solve as individuals; we can’t control what industry does or how quickly nurdles spread throughout the ocean and we haven’t even mentioned its equally devious cousin the bio-bead. In some ways this is true, for even the countries which control their use of nurdles, foreign pellets from more damaging nations still wash up on their shores and affect local wildlife. However, pressure from local organisations in countries around the world has forced businesses to sit up from their reclining office chairs and pay attention to the tiny pellets littering their workplace. Operation Clean Sweep is an international initiative created from the heart of the plastics industry and aims to reduce the loss of nurdles by following best practice, introducing greater containment and prevention measures and by assessing the risk of nurdle spillage throughout the whole of their buying chain, not just within their own business. In the UK, those who have signed up cover 45% of the total volume of plastic produced, creating great hope for the future of our industries. What started as a small Scottish charity, focussing on the impacts of the local nurdle production and distribution centres on puffin populations, has now generated a huge impact as national shipping companies have agreed to adopt best practices on their vessels, reducing the risk of a plastic spill not only in Scotland but in any country they travel to.

If you want to make a difference, this organisation has also created ‘The Great Nurdle Hunt’ which is an increasingly global citizen science project with data currently collected from 18 countries. One single hunt carried out by 33 volunteers on a beach in Cornwall collected roughly 127,500 nurdles on their weekend beach clean. Just imagine the number of animals which could have accidentally snacked on that immense number of pellets but are now able to live in a slightly cleaner and safer home. If you want to hunt for nurdles on your next beach clean or even in a couple minutes you have spare, they are often described as lentils, 3-5 millimetres in size and often round. They are most commonly white or clear but can come in many other colours. Once your gloves are on, the best places to search are around the tideline and in sheltered nooks such as vegetation clumps and behind rocky outcrops while they are much easier to spot on sandy bays. You can collect nurdles by hand or use sieves to separate them from the sand or a bucket of water where the nurdles will float and the sand sink; both methods which are great for making this worthwhile activity more exciting for kids. Once you’ve scoured the shore, the results can be sent to The Great Nurdle Hunt where they collate data to identify nurdle hotspots, giving us an indication of which industry-backed estuaries are the culprits and who needs to be at the receiving end of increasingly strict legislation. Even simply reducing the plastic packaging or products you buy by looking for recycled or alternative materials can help save the ocean as every synthetic item we purchase could have been the cause of a nurdle spill somewhere in its creation. In the case of plastic, it seems we need to look backwards at its creation before we can move forwards towards its future.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair