Their name might sound like something out of a cartoon, but nurdles are causing quite the stir.
Nurdles, tiny pellets used for producing a plethora of plastic products, are a growing pollution source in global waterways and along coastlines. While barely the size of a lentil and weighing only about 20 milligrams, more than 200,000 tons of nurdles are reportedly finding their way from cargo ships into the oceans each year.
Most recently, a ship in New Orleans that broke free from a wharf during a thunderstorm dropped a large container of nurdles into the Mississippi River. The pellets, possibly numbering in the billions, broke out of sacks and scattered throughout the water. They have since been washing up along the banks of the river.
Most of the New Orleans spill is likely to flow into the Gulf of Mexico, where the nurdles are expected to be consumed by fish and other marine life. The Coast Guard is investigating the incident but has determined that they have no jurisdiction because the nurdles are not considered a hazardous material, like oil or chemical waste, under the Clean Water Act. Nurdles themselves may not be toxic, but they can attract insecticides and pollutants and then easily be mistaken for food by small fish.
The New Orleans incident is just the latest chapter in the nurdle saga. Last year, regulators in Texas fined a plastic company more than $100,000 for failing to stop the product from getting into a creek that feeds into the Gulf. One of the largest documented nurdle spills ever occurred in 2017, when two ships collided and more than 49 tons were dumped into the sea. In that case, more than 1,200 miles of South African coastline was overrun.
There is even an effort underway — known as the Great Global Nurdle Hunt — to eradicate the problem by raising awareness. Fidra, a Scottish charity that runs the event, provides instructions that allow anyone to collect and submit evidence through its website. Even those who don’t find nurdles on their search are encouraged to submit findings.
More than 5,500 nurdle “hunts” have been submitted so far, according to the organization.