What are nurdles?

Nurdles pollution on a glove

As most people reading this will be aware, plastic, big and small, litters our streets, coastlines and seas causing ecological, social and economic damage. Plastic pollution comes in many forms. I want to use this opportunity to highlight a lesser-known, yet very significant, form of plastic pollution that is affecting beautiful beaches all around the world… industrial plastic pellets, or ‘nurdles’.

Raising the profile of this pollutant is crucial for encouraging scientific research which can improve clean-up operations and put in place, stronger preventative measures.  I spent my summer, counting nurdles on beaches in the beautiful, highly biodiverse Firth of Forth estuary, Scotland, as data collection for my masters dissertation. In total, across 18 beaches, I counted 5,591 nurdles using a simple, surveying method. Of the 18 beaches I surveyed, I estimated that 4 would have at least 10,000 nurdles, stranded along the vegetation line (and this is likely a VERY large under-estimation – perhaps only 10% of the total standing stock).

‘Nurdles’ sound almost cute, innocent even! But the reality is far from it. Nurdles are small, round plastic granules that are central to the plastics manufacturing industry. Plastic materials are developed at a compounder from raw materials (usually, oil and coal derivatives and chemical additives) into the form of a pellet. The pellets are then transported (usually on trucks, trains and ships) to a manufacturer, who melts pellets and moulds them into products that they can sell. All throughout this process, careless handling of pellets causes them to spill, onto streets and down drains. Pellets are lightweight and often buoyant, and so, are easily transported by wind and flowing water. Like other littered plastics, spilled pellets often find their way to the sea and become stranded on beaches.


The Impact of Nurdles


Generally, nurdles are 0.2-0.5cm in diameter, and therefore, fit within the microplastic category (although there is much dispute regarding this among scientists!). Nurdles are a direct, primary microplastic i.e. they arrive in the environment in the form of a microplastic, in contrast to microplastics that arise via the breakdown of larger plastic items. The effects of nurdles in the marine environment are similar to the effects of other forms of marine plastics. Nurdles bear a strong resemblance to fish eggs, so it is no wonder that many animals confuse them for nutritious food items. Instead, the animal consumes an item that it is unable to digest, causing serious, potentially fatal health effects. Like other plastics, nasty chemicals can latch onto pellets and be transferred to the food-chain – the food chain that we sit at the top of – causing hormonal and genetic changes in organisms.


Nurdles pollution on soil
Nurdles pollution on grass

Nurdles on a Fife, Scotland - nurdles are clearly the most abundant plastic pollutant in the photograph, this was fairly consistent across the beach!“Most of the pieces were hard, white cylindrical pellets, about 0.25cm to 0.5cm in diameter”.


The very first scientific recording of ocean plastics was by scientists, Carpenter and Smith in 1972. In their study, they took water surface samples of the Sargasso Sea and in their report, they stated:


They suggested, that these were the breakdown products of larger plastic items, but I think the authors are actually describing nurdles. Therefore, this may be the first record of nurdles within the natural environment. A couple of years later, the first recording of pellets on beaches occurred in New Zealand. Recently, more studies have emerged that are concerned with the abundance and distribution of pellets on beaches around the world – but they are still significantly understudied in comparison to other forms of marine plastic.


Nurdles are often found on beaches that are in close proximity to areas where nurdles are handled, particularly harbours and areas of industry. But they can also travel far and wide! Nurdles have been recorded on a Hawaiian island, where there is a complete absence of plastic industries. In 1983, a study by scientist M.R. Greggory, counted as many as 5,000 nurdles per meter squared on a Bermuda beach. It is vital for effective clean-ups of nurdles that scientists understand the extent of nurdle distribution, at world-wide and local scales.


How can we help?

This is where we, as individuals, can contribute! Raise the profile of nurdles by looking for them on beaches, look in the vegetation lines of small, enclosed sandy beaches and along the strand lines (where you find seaweed and other things that have been deposited on the beach) and you’re likely to spot a few! Take photographs and post them to social-media, tell your friends – spread the message. Unfortunately, due to their small size they are incredibly difficult to pick up and collect but if you do – remember that they might have horrible chemicals on them so always wear gloves. By raising awareness, we put pressure on policy-makers and the industries that spill nurdles to improve their practices and prevent these spillages.

The most effective contribution that we can make is by taking part in citizen science programmes (these aren’t as intense and time consuming as they might sound!). Check out the "Great Nurdle Hunt" by Fidra (a marine pollution charity based in Scotland). Each time you visit a beach, spend a short (or long) time looking for nurdles. If you find any (or none - no results its still a result!) record them on the Great Nurdle Hunt website. Fidra has a map of the world that shows where nurdles have been spotted and how many have been found - this can highlight previously unknown nurdle hotspots. Scientists can use this fantastic resource to inform their research which in-turn can improve clean-up strategies.



This article is written by Stay Wild family member Jenny Pearson, 24, living in Glasgow having recently completed her masters degree in Sustainability and Environmental studies. She is obsessed with the natural world and fighting to save it. Jenny says “The oceans are so precious - they are brimming with wonderful, delicate wildlife and they supply us with oxygen for every second breath we take.”

She is part of a wonderfully dedicated group of volunteers - @Glasgow Over Plastic. A youth-led, community interest group, aiming to create real systemic change within the community, to make Glasgow a city free of plastic waste!