Next time you’re out on a sandy beach looking for big marine mammals, why not take a few minutes to hunt for something a bit smaller… you’ll have to look very closely and carefully, but the likelihood is that they will be there – camouflaged, elusive, but sadly common on our beaches: nurdles.
WHAT ARE NURDLES?
Nurdles are small plastic pellets, about the size of a lentil (3-5 mm across). They are used as the raw material for virtually all our plastic products. Because of their small size and lightweight nature, they are easily lost by accidental spillage when handled or transported by industry. This can happen at any stage of the process of pellet production, transport or use. Once spilt, uncontained nurdles are washed into storm drains and are often carried straight out to sea.
WHY ARE THEY A PROBLEM?
Once in the sea nurdles soon become widely dispersed. Due to their small size and similarity to fish eggs, marine animals including mammals, birds and fish, have been found to ingest pellets. Pellets get trapped in their stomachs stopping them from eating real food and inhibiting appetite.
Nurdles have also been shown to absorb toxic chemicals (Persistent Bioaccumulating Toxins, PBTs) from the surrounding water, which can concentrate on the pellets to levels millions of times higher than surrounding water and can be re-released into animals once ingested1,2
Cetaceans such as filter feeding baleen whales3 and beaked whales4 have been shown to ingest microplastics, such as nurdles, which are a big source of these toxins to their diet. Due to PBT’s tendency to attach themselves to fatty tissue, blubbery animals such as whales are particularly prone to taking on high levels of these toxins. PCB levels in dolphins and whales are associated with health problems such as cancer, immune deficiency and first-calf mortality5.
If that wasn’t enough, chemicals added to plastics to change their characteristics (additives), can be potentially toxic, and easily leach from microplastic particles once eaten by marine mammals. For example, phthalate additives, used to make plastic more flexible, have been found through the digestive system of beached True’s beaked whales4.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
We can’t remove the nurdles that are already in the sea, but with your help we can encourage industry to stop adding to the problem:
SIGN UP TO SHOW YOUR SUPPORT ONLINE! Join us in calling for every company making, using or transporting nurdles around Scotland to sign the Operation Clean Sweep pledge and help end nurdle pollution into our seas.
HUNT FOR NURDLES! Sea watch volunteers Kirsten McEwan and John Allen have been looking out for nurdles at the end of their sea watches, searching the tideline and reporting any finds to our website. Maybe you could start to do the same?
Submit your findings to us online at www.nurdlehunt.org.uk to populate our Nurdle Map. This helps to highlight pellet pollution hotspots in the UK – valuable information we use to engage industry to take action and reduce pellet loss.
By Madeleine Berg, Projects Officer at Fidra. Fidra runs The Great Nurdle Hunt. Fidra is an SCIO and Scottish Registered Charity SCO43895
- 1. Rochman et al (2013) Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress. Scientific Reports 3, article number 3263.
- 2. Browne et al (2013) Microplastic moves pollutants and additives to worms, reducing functions linked to health and biodiversity. Current Biology 23, 2388-2392.
- 3. Fossi, M.C. et al. (2012) Are baleen whales exposed to the threat of microplastics? A case study of the Mediterranean fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64(11), pp.2374-2379.
- 4. A. L. Lusher et al. (2015) Microplastic and macroplastic ingestion by a deep diving, oceanic cetacean: The True’s beaked whale Mesoplodon mirus, Environmental Pollution, 199, 185-191,
- 5. Baulch and Perry (2014) Evaluating the impacts of marine debris on cetaceans. Marine Pollution Bulletin 80, 210-221
Another interesting blog about microplastics and Cetaceans: https://plastictides.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/about-dolphins-and-whales-and-plastics/ – blog by Heidi Acampora