Here’s Why Nurdles Are Killing the Ocean

The Eco Experts

Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans isn’t a new issue – the first scientific recordings of plastic in the ocean date all the way back to 1972.

What is new is how we’re beginning to describe this plastic pollution in the ocean. Specifically, ‘nurdles’, which is a word used to describe a type of plastic pollution damaging our oceans, killing wildlife, and threatening the very future of the planet itself.

The Eco Experts have investigated the impact of nurdles, looking at what they are and diving into why they’re killing the ocean.

What is a nurdle?

Nurdles, sometimes called “mermaid’s tears”, are tiny pieces of plastic typically no bigger than 1–5 millimetres. They are the fundamental building blocks of almost all plastic objects around the world.

This could be a bottle of water, or a television set – look around at the plastic items in your home and it's a safe bet nurdles were used to make them.

It's their small size that makes them so versatile, because manufacturers can easily melt them down to be moulded into different shapes.

The issue is when these nurdles are mismanaged and they end up in rivers and oceans through effluent pipes, sewage, or accidents when they’re being transported.

Nurdles fall into the microplastics category, being pieces of plastic less than 5mm in diameter. Unlike most microplastics, which are made from larger pieces broken up in the ocean, nurdles are intentionally small.

A good way to visualise nurdles is as plastic lentils, only far less tasty and a darn sight more nasty.

How many nurdles are in the ocean?

With the insatiable need for plastic in our modern world, the amount of nurdles making their way into the ocean is an almost unfathomable amount.

In the UK alone, it's estimated that around 53 billion plastic pellets enter the ocean every single year. That’s 35 tankers full of nurdles being dumped into the sea.

Looking at Europe, the picture gets even worse. Roughly 78,000 tonnes of nurdles leak into the sea every year – that’s billions and billions of nurdles.

But what about the whole world? According to environmental charity Fidra, roughly 230,000 tonnes of nurdles enter the ocean annually. So not billions, but trillions of nurdles polluting the ocean.

The sheer scale is almost impossible to comprehend and stresses the dire need for companies to become more accountable for how they manage nurdles.

Governments are just as much at fault, as it's on them to introduce tougher regulations and sanctions for nurdle mismanagement.

The big problem is that plastic is still an essential part of our world. Tragically, plastic has become (and will remain) an indispensable part of the economies of people who can’t so easily “ditch plastic” like us here in the Western world.

And more often than not, it is these communities that suffer the worse effects nurdles have on the ocean.

Why are nurdles bad for the ocean?

Nurdles are bad for the ocean for myriad reasons. At a basic level, it is their small size that allows them to so easily impact the ocean, because currents can carry whole swarms of them for countless miles.

The worst part of nurdles is when they enter the food chain. There are already thousands if not millions of examples of marine life mistakenly consuming nurdles, which usually ends up in the death of the poor creature doing the eating.

This is because for many ocean dwellers, nurdles appear strikingly similar to what they eat. Predatory fish eat nurdles thinking they're fish eggs. Whales inadvertently eat nurdles when they hunt for plankton. Larger predators such as sharks, ingest nurdles when they chomp on smaller creatures already filled with the toxic pellets.

Nurdles also have a nasty habit of attracting toxic substances to their surfaces. Long-lasting harmful chemicals, such as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), have been found on nurdles in concentrations of over 1 million times background levels.

What are people doing about nurdles?

Once nurdles enter the sea, they’re practically impossible to clean up. That is why most people campaigning against nurdles argue for prevention – stopping them from entering the ocean in the first place.

The Great Nurdle Hunt, a charity investigating nurdles, argues that companies transporting nurdles need to be far more careful. They say that much more needs to be done to prevent spillage from facilities handling nurdles too, using things like filters in drains, spill kits, and better training for staff.

In an ideal world, every company using nurdles would have to have prevention strategies in place.

What else is threatening the ocean?

The human impact on the ocean is vast, with far-reaching consequences for not only marine life, but life on land too, including us.

Each and every day there is damage caused by our activities, particularly oil and gas drilling. This releases toxic materials into the ocean, changing its chemical makeup and destroying habitats as a result.

Once the oil or gas is taken from the ocean, burning it then has the effect of releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, which leads to ocean acidification.

This is where the pH balance of the ocean shifts further from alkaline to acidic, a shift that will have a huge effect on creatures using shells.

A more acidic ocean will make it more difficult for marine organisms such as plankton to form a skeleton and the shell around their body. Existing shells could dissolve too, killing countless marine creatures and throwing the ocean ecosystem into disarray.

Larger pieces of plastic have wreaked havoc in the ocean as well. The ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’ is one of several gigantic concentrations of discarded plastic.

At roughly double the size of Texas and containing nearly 2.7 million tonnes of plastic, it represents a critical threat to the ocean.

And it’s only getting bigger, killing thousands of marine organisms every year who mistake the floating debris for food (turtles commonly eat plastic carrier bags thinking they’re jellyfish, a key part of their diet).

Birds are affected by the Great Pacific garbage patch as well, with more and a million dying per year after ingesting plastic.

It’s estimated that by 2050 the ocean will carry more plastic mass than fish, and that 99% of all seabirds worldwide will have consumed plastic in their lifetimes.

Summary

Nurdles are an ongoing ocean catastrophe and if there aren’t urgent steps to stop more nurdles entering the ocean, it will only get worse.

Governments around the world need to introduce much stricter regulations on companies handling nurdles, because right now it is far too easy for spillages to occur.

It’s things like the nurdles crisis that makes it clear our ocean is far more fragile than we might think.

Too much damage has already been done, but with a combined effort to stop nurdles entering the ocean we could avoid the worst case scenario – an ocean where plastic outnumbers marine life.

Tom Gill Writer

Tom is a big fan of all things eco and has a passionate interest in how technology and localised projects can work together to make the world greener.

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