What is a Nurdle?

What is a Nurdle?

Nurdles are found on an ever-increasing number of the world’s beaches and are present in almost every ocean on the planet, these small plastic pellets the size of lentils are becoming a serious problem for the environment.

A nurdle is a factory-made pellet, they are the raw material which we use to create almost every plastic item we can buy, from water bottles and plastic cutlery to anything in between. Billions of pounds of nurdles are made every year and then moulded and fashioned into plastic items. They are the building blocks of all the plastic waste you see on a daily basis.

Nurdles in hand on the beach

You are most likely to have seen a nurdle on your last trip to the beach, they look like little round plastic balls, sometimes mistaken for fish eggs, and come in many colours.

How do so many nurdles end up in our oceans?

Through the process of production, nurdles end up in the waterways and oceans of the world. Nurdles are small and hard to contain, as they are manually handled on factory floors, packed onto freight lorries, trains and ships, they invariably spill out onto the ground, into the ocean and into rivers. They find their way into our drainage systems and waterways, eventually arriving at the sea, where they are washed out with the current.

Nurdles are unable to biodegrade, they only get smaller as they are damaged by the weather and the ocean’s current, they never really go away. This means that all the nurdles that entered the ocean’s ecosystem, are still there. If they haven’t washed up on a beach, they are swimming around our seas.

This is very bad news for the environment. In the Great Winter Nurdle Hunt of 2017, of the 279 shorelines in the UK surveyed, 73% had plastic on them.

Where does all this plastic end up?

So, apart from our beaches and shorelines, where does all this pesky plastic end up? There’s something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a circulating ocean system known as a gyre. We have five main gyres on the planet, and the biggest is the one in the Pacific, it’s about the size of Texas. This is where vast, vast amounts of nurdles and other plastic items gather, and it is as awful and damaging to marine life as it sounds.

Plastic waste floating off the coast of pacific island

As creatures hunt for food in the oceans, they often come across plastic items such as nurdles and mistake them for food. Once they have been eaten – because they are not degradable – they will stay inside a fish or bird’s digestive system. This is where the problem starts for the animal, the nurdles build up over time and trick it into thinking it’s full, making it slowly starve to death.

Another problem is that nurdles attract toxins in the water, through their make-up they are able to absorb chemicals and retain them, meaning that, once ingested, marine life will slowly die from poisoning. Once an animal dies or is eaten, all of the toxic plastic items lodged in its digestive system then goes on to poison and starve the creature that has just eaten it for lunch.

How do we solve the nurdle problem?

With an estimated 53 billion nurdles expected to escape into the environment every year, and 230,000 tonnes entering the oceans of Europe alone annually, how do we solve the nurdle problem?

This is a problem on an international scale, nurdles are made and shipped worldwide and are washing up on beaches and shorelines across the globe, therefore, it needs a global response.

Plastic cleanup on a beach, plastic mesh in someone's hand

There are many initiatives that work to reduce the amount of plastic entering our environment, including Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) and the Great Nurdle Hunt. The consensus is that, to reduce the number of nurdles in our oceans and waterways, we must control the potential for spillage, and carefully audit the transit process to minimise the number of nurdles that escape.

As well as this, we can pledge to reduce the amount of single-use plastics we use, enabling us to limit the amount of plastic entering the environment, and, as every plastic item is made from nurdles, reduce the demand for the raw material by using less plastic.


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