What Exactly Is A Nurdle?

They might be adorably named, but nurdles are a huge headache and cause a great deal of environmental damage. If you are beachcombing or mudlarking you may have seen these diminutive little microplastic beads washing up on the shore. This article deals with nurdles: their composition, the issue with their proliferation, and some potential solutions. 

OK, But What Is A Nurdle?

Nurdles are tiny beads of plastic. They are around the size of a lentil and typically don’t look like much to the untrained eye. To the environmentalist or marine biologist, however, they are a foreboding sign. Billions and billions of these pellets are created, used, and spilled every single year.

Why Are They Made?

Nurdles are a standard medium for storing and purchasing plastic. They are often made as the end product in recycling centers. After being sorted, compacted by machines from places like, and melted down, the resulting materials are transformed into a multitude of nurdle pellets. These pellets are easily transportable and have a large total surface area, making them easy to work with from a manufacturing point of view. 

How Do They End Up In The Environment?

Theoretically, manufacturers and exporters have it in their interest to keep a close eye on the nurdles they deal with. After all, these plastic pellets are a key part of their business models. Nurdles, however, are easy to spill. Containers regularly spill their contents into the sea during storms, and nurdles are impossible to get back once they have been spilled overboard. It is estimated that there will be 230,000 tons of nurdles lost at sea globally every single year. That amounts to many billions of pellets littering the ocean. 

Why Is This A Problem?

Nurdles are made of plastic, which takes around 450 years to naturally biodegrade. This means that they accumulate, as opposed to developing any sort of balance in the ocean. They also happen to look a great deal like fish roe, which means they get eaten by marine animals and enter into the food chain. They are often poisonous to the creatures that eat them. More than 220 marine species have been found to have ingested plastic debris. Nurdles also physically change the environments in which they accumulate. The composition of sand, for instance, can change due to nurdle content. This can make it harder for animals such as turtles to procreate successfully. On the Gulf Coast of Texas, nurdles are severely damaging the beach environment, which in turn affects animal populations. 

What Can Be Done?

Nurdles are an essential part of the recycling and plastic manufacturing process, so it is unlikely that they will ever be truly phased out. A more realistic solution to the nurdle problem is adopting more strict international laws on the shipping and storage of these tiny micropellets. Currently, nurdles can be stored in rather insecure shipping containers without any kind of contingency for container loss. This needs to change. Humanity also needs to reconsider its relationship to plastic as a whole. Industrial leaders need to be pressured to remove plastic from their material footprints. 


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