What are nurdles, and what are they doing on my beach?

This one time I found nurdles on a beach I really like visiting in Oregon. Nurdles are a sneaky type of marine plastic debris. 


The Oregon coast is wild and beautiful. The water is dark and sharky. Seals often surface next to you in the lineup. Foggy mornings give way to sunny afternoons and long summer evenings.

One of my favourite haunts is Ecola State Park, just north of Cannon Beach. The drive to the bluff overlooking the water takes you through the most beautiful moss forest. You can easily spend the whole day there surfing, playing frisbee, petting all the random pooches and taking in the surroundings.

The Pacific ocean swells that crash into the shoreline bring with them all manner of marine debris. Old rope, shoes, bottles. broken pieces of plastic.

I went about picking up pieces of trash, as you do. When I looked under a rock I found these smooth plastic pellets, which are called nurdles.

Nurdles are raw plastic resin pellets, generally under 5mm in diameter, that are destined to be melted and moulded into plastic goods. In contrast to much of the beach trash we’re used to picking up, nurdles are pre-production. They haven’t even been transformed into a straw, grocery bag or coffee cup lid yet and they’re already polluting the ocean. Ugh.

Toxic (s)pills

Spills happen when nurdles are transported from the place the are made to the place the product they’ll become is made. In our tangled, globalised supply chain, it’s no irony that cheap oil enables the transport of cheap petro plastic across oceans and back again. This leaves ample opportunity for spillage.

When small pieces of plastic get into the ocean, they cause all sorts of physiological problems for animals, including starvation, digestive system damage, choking and even the inability to evade predators. Charles Moore’s book Plastic Ocean is well worth a read for more detail. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, he is also rather delightful in person and will pair a tuxedo with a tiki hat made of up-cycled plastic bags. But I digress.

Plastic pieces in the ocean are also a sponge for persistent environmental pollutants. Marine plastics can have up to 1 million times greater concentration of PCBs, DDT and than the surrounding water.

Fish and marine animals eat the plastic pieces because of mistaken identity or because they’re simply unavoidable where they outnumber food sources. Ever seen a whale shark eat dinner? Not unlike a vacuum, they take in whatever is in their path.

Even animals living in the most remote deepwater ocean trenches show PCB contamination.

As one fish eats another, toxins accumulate in the food chain. It means that plastic, including these nurdles, can be thought of as distribution method for toxic chemicals.

How big is the issue?

Nurdles may be small, but the threat they pose is large, mostly because they’re next to impossible to clean up.

To give you a sense of scale, this particular beach in Oregon is about a mile long. A swath of these smooth stones runs the length of the beach and is several metres deep from the forest line to where the sand begins.

Under every rock I looked I found nurdles. All the rocks people.

Avoiding plastic is worth the effort

All this to say that whenever it seems trite to avoid new plastic, think of the nurdles. Or the turtles. Or yourself. Because we’re all living in the same habitat that is becoming more plastic polluted all the time. 

Demand for plastic goods, which are often used just once and tossed, encourages the transport of this substance that is pretty much impossible to scrub out. Any small effort to stop the demand for plastic is worth it, whether you’re fully plastic free, or just working your way through worst single use offenders.

Next time you’re at the beach, have a look around and see if you can find any of these tiny plastic polluters.

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