“For the last 60 years, nurdles have been spilled into the ocean, but we don’t know who the polluter has been or where the pollution has happened,” she says. “So, the significant thing about the [Durban] spill is we know the point source of the pollution and the size of the spill.”
As for cleanup efforts, there is no effective way of removing large numbers of nurdles once they’re out in the environment, says Berg of Fidra. “You’re talking about billions and trillions of pellets,” she says. “If you were trying to collect those up, you would probably be collecting a huge amount of [natural debris] which would include a lot of, you know, sea creatures that you don’t want to be removing, lots of organic material,” Berg cautions. Even when cleanup efforts are successful, Berg adds, “what we find is that often they end up being replaced by more pellets, quite soon after.”
Nurdles can be lost at any point during the production and shipping stages. The pellets are manufactured by petrochemical companies and transported by train, ship, or truck to facilities where they are melted and shaped into a final plastic product. “They tend to kind of ping everywhere and get blown easily by the wind,” Berg says. “And if they’re not very well managed … then that can easily lead to leaks into the environment.”
Through an industry-led program called Operation Clean Sweep, manufacturers can opt to follow guidelines and best practices to achieve zero pellet, flake and powder loss. But the program is voluntary, and there is no external check to make sure companies are complying.
Meanwhile, experts say the demand for plastic production, now estimated at 335 million tons annually, is growing, which means the demand for nurdles is also on the rise. “More companies have best practices in places than they used to,” Berg says. “But at the same time, we’re still massively increasing the amount of plastic that we use, produce, manufacture, every year.”
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Tunnell is bracing for what that could mean locally. A dozen new United States facilities or expansions—nearly all of them in Texas—are expected within the next three years, according to information obtained by Tunnell from ICIS, a petrochemical market-research company. “Seventy-five percent of the facilities that are either expanding or new are in Texas, out of the whole country,” he says, adding that at some point, there will inevitably be a spill that can be traced back to its source.
Because of that potential, education has been a crucial part of citizen-scientist projects like Tunnell’s. In addition to presentations to his local community, Tunnell visited all five Gulf states in May to collect samples and expand his Nurdle Patrol program.
“Hopefully this is creating some awareness, not only with the typical environmental people,” Tunnell says, but also “the folks that work at the industry, the people that are making decisions, the city folks, the folks that are up in Austin making decisions for us.
“Look, there’s a problem that needs to change,” he adds, “and it’s been going on for decades.”