Spot the nurdle: Petro-chemical Pellet Pollution - words by Sarah Child

Our awareness of plastic pollution from used and discarded products is growing, and images are becoming more prominent on social media and news feeds highlighting this as a problem in the ocean; images of micro beads, patches of circulating trash, turtles with straws lodged in their nostril, floating plastic bags and exposed stomachs of albatross. While these images are distressing, they are only a visual representation of a portion of the problem. It is the invisible and the unseen plastic pollution problem in our Pacific and beyond that we struggle to comprehend, the nurdle.

In order to get to this current point of pollution from our short-lived, discarded plastic products, we have created an even bigger problem during pre-production. In order to make plastic, oil needs to be extracted from deep in the earth (let’s not dig into that debate right now) and then is cooled in small droplets or pellets.

These plastic resin pellets are called nurdles and come in a range of colours and shapes, ranging from microscopic to 15mm. You have probably seen them without even realising. Despite their size and whimsical, common name, ‘mermaid tears’, these tiny droplets of petro-chemicals are a major threat.

Nurdles are penetrating our environment, our ecosystems and our food chain without having even fulfilled their destiny of making our lives more convenient and “hygienic”. Because of their size and weight, nurdles are often ‘lost’ during transportation and manufacturing. They are shipped all over the world, escaping one by one carried by wind, floating with run off, falling through cracks or just being irresponsibly handled and spilt. There is no way to track the nurdles back to the companies that may have mishandled them and therefore no accountability for this pervasive problem.

Nurdles do not disappear or biodegrade due to their artificial chemical makeup. Once in the ocean, nurdles like other plastic products are carried by currents and end up circulating in one of the 5 gyres (a rotating current), such as the Great pacific garbage patch, swirling forever. If they do not spend eternity floating they will end up being ingested, either by mistaken identity (egg or large grain of sand) or by lack of visibility to the naked eye. Nurdles end up in the digestive tract of crustaceans, fish, birds, sharks, whales, polar bears and consequently humans. This is not before they have picked up a few things along the way.

While it is obviously not healthy to attempt to digest solid petrochemicals there are even more toxins attached to nurdles. As with mircoplastics and other petro-chemical products, nurdles have been found to be very efficient at absorbing and concentrating chemicals. Chemicals are drawn to the chemical makeup of nurdles and stick to them. Think of all different chemicals that we absentmindedly pour down drains, watch flow down our gutters, let run off into our waterways from domestic, such as bathing products, cleaning products to industrial chemicals or fertilizers. This means that marine life, including some of the lower organisms in the food chain like molluscs and shellfish are ingesting the multitude of chemicals that are found in the ocean and as they are consumed up the food chain more chemicals are consumed. This is build-up of chemicals in an organism faster than they can metabolise or excrete is called bioaccumulation and it does not only affect marine life but it can interfere with human internal systems.

Before we even make that decision on whether we buy the pre-washed spinach in plastic or refuse a plastic straw, these products themselves have been part of a process that have contributed to the now prevalent and inescapable problem or nurdles in our oceans, risking the health of delicate global ecosystems, the health of humans and future generations.

Realising the scale of which plastic and chemicals are entering oceans and food systems without being able to see it is hard to digest, but it is better to acknowledge this problem and look at changes than continuing to digest chemicals.


kathryn child