Nurdles: cuddly by name, killers in nature

Nurdles are tiny pieces of plastic, about the size of a lentil. As the main raw material in the plastics industry, you’ll find nurdles in everything from plastic bottles and bags, to packaging, car components and keyboards. But disastrously, you’ll also find them in our rivers and seas – billions and billions of them.

Because nurdles are so small and light, they easily escape at multiple points along the plastic supply chain, during transportation, storage and manufacture. Once free, these tiny plastic pellets quickly end up in watercourses on their way to the big blue.

Nurdles are a type of microplastic. Over time, they degrade into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic – they never really go away. Because of their size, all kinds of marine life (large and small) end up ingesting them. Eating plastic is never a good idea, but microplastics are particularly bad because they absorb pollutants like DDT and PCBs which magnify to highly toxic levels. When a fish eats a nurdle, it’s eating dangerous chemicals. Which means, when we eat fish, we’re eating those toxic chemicals too.

Nurdles have become one of the most prolific items of beach and ocean pollution. We’ve found them everywhere from the arctic to the equator, from rivers to lakes, soils to sediments, surface waters, the deep sea and sea ice. Removing them from the environment is incredibly hard, but the good news is there are excellent opportunities to prevent them getting into nature in the first place.

Common Seas is one of a growing group of organisations that are alarmed by the scale of microplastic pollution and are working to reduce it. For example, through Plastic Drawdown, we are helping governments identify, prioritise and implement the portfolio of policies that will most effectively reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean.

When it comes to nurdles, we are building on Operation Clean Sweep (an existing industry-led initiative) to introduce new, strictly enforced regulations across the plastic supply chain. By regulating the transport, storage and manufacture of these pellets (and conducting regular audits to identify and correct any mismanagement), and by enforcing best practice regulations to clean up any pellet spills, we can massively reduce the amount of microplastics entering our seas.

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