Tiny Terrors

Nurdle spills are coating Louisiana (and the world’s) shorelines

Nearly a year and a half after a shipping container carrying 55-pound bags of pre-production plastic pellets fell off the container ship CMA CGM Bianca into the Mississippi River, Louisiana’s beaches and riverbanks are still littered with them. There haven’t been any significant cleanup efforts from state or federal agencies, and scientists say there isn’t enough being done to prevent future spills from occurring.

Walking along the overcast, windy beach of Elmer’s Island at the sole of Louisiana’s boot, it took less than two minutes of searching for Dr. Mark Benfield and his assistant, Madeline Fryer, to find what they were looking for. “Yep,” Benfield said, pointing to the ground. “Nurdle.”

Benfield is a professor of oceanography at LSU and a plastic pollution expert. In his palm was a small plastic bead he’d plucked from the sand. After a few more minutes walking along the water line, Benfield was holding several nurdles. “These all look fairly similar, so they’re all probably from the same spill,” Benfield said.

Nurdles are produced in large batches and like snowflakes, no two batches are exactly the same. On August 2, 2020, the CMA CGM Bianca, an enormous container ship, broke free from its moorings at the Napoleon Avenue Wharf during a storm, and a container filled with Dow Chemical polyethylene nurdles fell into the river. The plastic pellets broke out of their 55-pound sacks and floated down the river, depositing along banks and beaches and making their way out into the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually the beaches of Elmer’s Island.

The little pellets were lightweight and a little dirty. Though they may seem harmless, nurdles are insidious little pieces of plastics, known as microplastics, that wreak havoc on the environment—especially marine life.

Benfield knows these nurdles all too well—he was in New Orleans right after the Bianca spill almost a year and a half ago. He called the incident a “nurdle apocalypse” and described beaches covered in white pellets looking like snow. “These look like Bianca nurdles,” he said, studying the dingy beads he held in his hand. “Bianca nurdles are cylindrical. They’re concave on one end, convex on the other, and slightly flared at the base.” But Benfield and Fryer soon found other nurdles that must have come from different, unknown sources or spills.

Nurdles are what’s known as a “primary microplastic” pollutant, meaning it’s one of the main sources of microplastics found in the ocean. The reason there are so many nurdles in the world’s oceans and waterways is because they’re the most widely used form of plastic. In 2017, the world consumed more than 257 million tons of nurdles, putting them well ahead of synthetic textiles at around 42 million tons, and tires at just over 6 million tons.

Nurdles are in pretty much everything. Any plastic item, from water bottles and car parts to Mardi Gras beads, starts its life as a nurdle. The pre-production pellets (as they’re called in the industry) are made at plastics plants and transported to manufacturers where they’re melted down and used to create plastic products. Nurdles aren’t intentionally disposed of, so every single nurdle that gets into the environment gets there as a result of a spill or an accident during production, transport, or use.

Scientists first noticed plastic pollution in the ocean back in the late 1960s when they were fishing for plankton to study, and their equipment became entangled in plastics. Since then, the debris has only gotten worse. One of the most famous examples is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris floating in the North Pacific Ocean. Also known as the Pacific trash vortex, it’s currently grown to encompass more than 620,000 square miles—that’s twice the size of Texas, three times the size of France.

Aside from literally adding to the problem as a form of plastic pollution themselves, nurdles have properties which compound their detrimental effects on the oceans. They act as “toxic sponges” that soak up chemicals and pollutants in the water. “Organic pollutants, aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, pesticides, herbicides, they’ll build up on the surface over time,” Benfield said. “And then some little animal that eats it is then going to get all of those chemicals as well as the plastic when they ingest it. And in the acid of their digestive system, the chemicals that come off, they’ll absorb them.”

Benfield said that many of those toxic chemicals are known as endocrine disruptors, meaning they can affect the way an animal grows and develops, leading to abnormalities and health issues. Additionally, when a bigger animal eats a smaller one that’s loaded with chemical pollutants, it absorbs them as well, a process known as bioaccumulation. So those toxins can work their way up the food chain, eventually making their way to human consumption.

The impacts of nurdles on wildlife isn’t new information either. In a 1992 report titled “Plastic Pellets in the Aquatic Environment,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed about 80 species of shorebirds that were known at the time to be eating nurdles, as well as sea turtles, fish, and potentially baleen whales. That’s in addition to “secondary ingestion” which happens when a seabird or fish eats another bird or fish that had ingested plastic pellets.

“When animals eat these pellets, it can clog their intestinal tract,” said Jace Tunnell, reserve director at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. Tunnell said consuming nurdles can make animals feel full and eventually cause them to starve to death. The 1992 EPA report contains images of the intestinal tracts of sea birds that had eaten about a dozen pellets and died as a result.

“Since that 1992 study, there have been many other studies that have looked at the chemicals that can be absorbed onto the outer surface of the pellets,” Tunnell said. “These are chemicals out in the waterways. Things like PCBs that are in light fixtures, and DDT, which is banned in the U.S. but still being used in other places.”

Tunnell became interested in tracking nurdles after a major spill at Corpus Christi, Texas in September of 2018. “I was at the beach and I looked at the high tide line, and there were all these solid pellets,” Tunnell said. “So I posted about it on Facebook, and somebody said that I needed to call the Coast Guard. So that’s what I did, and they put me in touch with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”

Tunnell said the TCEQ came out to the beach to see the spill and take samples. Eventually, they decided that they couldn’t clean up the plastic pellets and they didn’t know where they came from because there wasn’t any system to monitor nurdle spills and the state didn’t have any manpower they could dedicate to it. So Tunnell decided to start his own group dedicated to cleaning up and tracking nurdles. “For us to communicate, I created a Facebook page called ‘Nurdle Patrol,’ and we were supposed to post once a month about what we were finding,” Tunnell said.

The Nurdle Patrol group devised a simple way to survey a beach: set a timer for 10 minutes, collect as many nurdles as you can, and then count them. That simple survey can give a rough estimate of how many nurdles are on a certain beach and help identify where nurdles are in high concentrations. But more importantly, it allows anyone to become a citizen scientist and help monitor and track nurdles without any specialized equipment or training. All you need is 10 minutes and a bag.

The idea quickly took off. “Within that first month, I figured out real quick that we’re gonna have to create a website and some way for people to put data in because I was getting like 500 emails from people going out doing these 10-minute surveys,” Tunnell said. The Nurdle Patrol website offers training videos and provides free collection kits. There’s also a form used to input collection data, which then appears on a map along with other surveys conducted by people all over the world. “We’ve had over 12,000 surveys that have been done in 18 different countries.”

Nurdle Patrol was also used after the Bianca spill. Almost three weeks after the incident, the shipping company that lost the container of nurdles hired a company to start cleaning up. They used leaf blowers to group nurdles together and then scoop them up. But they only cleaned up a small fraction of the nurdles, and their leaf blowers pushed some of the plastic pellets back out into the river.

Cleanup workers collect nurdles along the shore of the Mississippi River in the immediate aftermath of the Bianca spill in 2020

The Coast Guard pointed to Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, and the DEQ dragged their feet on determining who was responsible for the cleanup effort. Ultimately, no party was charged with cleaning up the plastic pellets, in large part because they are not classified as “hazardous material,” like oil or chemical waste, under the Clean Water Act.

When it became clear that nobody was going to clean up the nurdles, local residents took the matter into their own hands—literally. “I was just walking along the batture, and I saw the nurdles. You could just see mountains of them at the waterline and it just felt really defeating, because you’re like ‘how can anyone clean this up?’” said Serena Thompson, a resident of Algiers Point in New Orleans. “Then I learned that the only efforts were community efforts, so just small groups of people getting together in their off time to clean up this huge industrial spill. And I live right by it, so I got some friends together, and we started cleaning.”

Thompson and others used brooms, dustpans, sieves, and colanders they brought from their own kitchens and closets to collect and bag up nurdles on beaches and banks around New Orleans. They created a Facebook group called GNO Plastic Pellet Clean Up Crew and members would post times and locations to meet up, as well as ask for supplies in their cleanup efforts. People brought beer, food, and even their children to help pick up nurdles. They also counted them and input the data into Nurdle Patrol to help monitor and track them.

While it may be impossible to pick up every single nurdle, each one picked up is one taken out of the environment. Organizers say that when people dedicate their free time to pick up plastic pellets covering beaches, it brings attention to the problem. “I’ve been doing a lot of climate organizing over the past year,” said Quinn Bishop, an activist who helped clean up nurdles and was an organizer with Sunrise Movement, a youth movement that seeks to stop climate change. “I think back to the cleanup efforts with the nurdles as one of the most effective things that I did, and I’ve done things like ride a canoe onto Joe Manchin’s yacht dock, and other forms of protest that we’ve been told are effective.”

Bishop said that it’s embarrassing to the city and state when residents are forced to use their own time and household items to clean up industrial pollution—something they should be doing—and is itself a form of protest. She said nurdle spills are different from other “human pollution” that individual people can create, like littering. “This was companies, it was people with names, it was our government’s inaction because they’re being paid by those same people,” Bishop said. “I think when we say, ‘humans are doing this,’ it kind of erases that. There’s a whole system that’s present, and can be critiqued really directly.”

Because nurdles are not classified as “hazardous material” despite the damage that experts say they cause to the environment and wildlife, and because of the convoluted hierarchy of manufacturers, shippers, and state and federal environmental agencies, it’s difficult to assign blame when a spill occurs. In the case of the Bianca spill, nurdles are still all over the banks and beaches of the Mississippi River from New Orleans down to the Gulf of Mexico, but neither Dow Chemical nor the shipping company were ever penalized for it.

Even more frustrating for scientists, many of the nurdles collected along the lower Mississippi come from our own backyard, a region with nearly 150 oil refineries, plastics plants, and chemical facilities known as the “Petrochemical Corridor” or, more commonly, “Cancer Alley.” “They’re being produced in that corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, or they’re being lost from vessels between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and come down stream,” Benfield said, surveying the cloudy Elmer’s Island beach, holding a bag with about a dozen nurdles in it. “And you know, it bothers me that this is something from Louisiana. This shouldn’t be here. None of this plastic should be here.”

Dr. Mark Benfield (left) and Dr. Elizabeth Marchio collect nurdles under a wharf in New Orleans on August 25, 2020.

Scientists and activists say that there are real steps that could be taken to help prevent future spills. “I would be all for nurdles being considered hazardous material because that would change the way they’re transported,” Tunnell said. “How they’re shipped, how they’re bagged up, how they’re disposed of—everything about the way these things are handled would change.” Tunnell said another proactive solution would be to require stricter regulations and requirements for storing and transporting nurdles when states reissue industrial permits to plastics plants as they come up for renewal.

Tunnell and Benfield also believe there should be tighter federal regulations, and Benfield would like to create a database of nurdles that would require manufacturers to submit samples that they produce. Scientists could then use a spectrometer to analyze samples of nurdles for their “spectral signature fingerprint,” which would tell them exactly what they’re made of, but more importantly, where they were made. “Every nurdle is a little bit different but there’ll be the same from certain sources,” Benfield said. “So we’re hoping to start to build a library of spectral signature fingerprints that maybe we could use down the road to identify where they come from.”

Benfield said knowing the source of the nurdles can help regulators fine and penalize a manufacturer. With “pure production pellet” samples—samples of nurdles produced at a particular facility—scientists may even be able to backtrack spilled nurdles that are already in the environment, and potentially fine companies to help incentivize them to prevent future spills. “Until there’s a monetary penalty that is sufficiently high to make it more costly to spill them than not, then we won’t see much change,” Benfield said.

But it would require a serious effort from the federal government to force companies to provide samples to labs for analysis, something it hasn’t been willing to do. “I think that’s one of the worst myths of the U.S. government,” Bishop said. “They play the victim when it comes to corporations when they are the ones who regulate them. They’re the ones who set up the system to allow these corporations to do what they’re doing.”

Bishop said that until there are tighter regulations and funding for mitigation efforts, it’s up to individual people to clean up nurdles and bring more attention to the problem. She said she lives by an old Southern phrase: I didn’t start it, but I’ll finish it. “The fact is I saw this on the internet and I just did it as a person,” Bishop said. “My presence out there wasn’t just me with a strainer and a broom, cleaning up some nurdles. It was also everyone in my community watching me do that.”

In the end, the nurdles that are in the world’s oceans and along its beaches and riverbanks will be there forever, soaking up more and more industrial chemicals, growing more toxic over time. There isn’t a way to scan a beach and find each and every nurdle—there’s no “magic magnet” that can attract plastic pellets, as Benfield put it. And it’s impossible for individuals to collect every single one of them by hand. They’re just too small and there are too many of them.

Generations of children playing on beaches and along river banks all across the world will find the little plastic pellets. Scientists say that’s why it’s so crucial that we take steps now to prevent future spills. “We need to be looking at the next generation of stewards that are growing up, you know, the kids. These nurdles are going to be around even when their grandkids are around,” Tunnell said. “We know there’s a problem now. We need to fix it so that we’re not pushing this off on the next generation.”

photos by Julie Dermansky