Nurdles: The tiny plastic pollutant causing a huge problem in our ocean and shoreline

Local News

Nurdles found South Padre Island Saturday, June 5, 2021. [KVEO]

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas (KVEO) – By now, most have heard about plastics being an issue facing the Earth’s Ocean and wildlife, but few are mentioning one of the largest contributors to the problem.  

Many organizations have shown through research and studies that the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean is growing at an alarming rate as humans have become more dependent on it throughout the years.  

To put into perspective, scientists estimate that the equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic is entering the ocean each minute.  

To make matters worse, plastic never fully decomposes; it only breaks down into smaller pieces that can find their way into our food chain.  

Most of the plastic in the ocean has been discarded at some point after single-use, but that is not the only type of plastic polluting the ocean.  

Nurdles found on South Padre Island, Saturday June 5, 2021. [KVEO]

Nurdles, the raw material that plastic is made up of, are also finding their way into the ocean. They are small and can easily blend into the sand at the beach.  

Before 2017, nurdles were not known to be a problem, but after a large spill of nurdles washed up on the Corpus Christi, Texas shoreline, the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve (MANERR) at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, Texas began trying to combat the issue by collecting data.  

The “Nurdle Patrol” project used data collected by beach-goers to determine the number of nurdle spills that have occurred and where they occurred.  

They ask beach-goers to report the number of nurdles they collected within 10 minutes and where they were found.  

Director for the MANERR, Jace Tunnell, said with the data that they have collected so far, they can show that nurdles are being spilled periodically in specific areas where plastic is manufactured. 

“We’ve been able to show that the highest concentrations of plastic pellets being found are up in the bay systems where the plastic manufacturing sites are,” said Tunnell.  

Because of their size, nurdles easily and accidentally spilled as they are transported by land, through train, and sea, through ships, on their way to the plastic manufacturing sites.   

“How we know this, is because whenever we go out and do a survey, say on South Padre, we go out and find 100 nurdles in ten minutes, you can look at the hundred and 99% of those will be different,” said Tunnell. “And that tells us that they were each individual spills.” 

The size of the nurdles is not only a problem because they are easy to spill and hard to clean up, they also look like food to many sea creatures that feed on fish eggs.  

“Birds, sea turtles, and fish. If they eat one or two, [nurdles] will probably just pass through their intestinal tract and go out the other end,” said Tunnell. “But if they eat enough of them, it can clog up their intestines to where they can’t eat anymore.” 

Tunnell said MANERR is also looking into how many toxins the nurdles absorb while they are in the ocean and if those toxins make their way into the muscle of the fish that humans end up eating.  

“We’re using the data that is being collected to raise awareness in political leaders that can change laws,” said Tunnell.  

One of the changes they aim to make is to outlaw the release of any plastic pellets. Current permits allow a trace amount, that is not specified, to be released.  

To learn more about the nurdles and how you can help with the research, visit the Nurdle Patrol website.

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