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As you walk across a sandy beach, you may be walking over tiny plastic pellets that are causing a big problem for our waterways and ocean. The question is, what are they and how did they get there?

An image of a glass containing several plastic pellets, often called nurdles, found in a natural waterway.

What are nurdles?

Nurdles, or industrial plastic pellets, are the raw form of plastic that producers use to make nearly all plastic products. A plastic production facility does not typically make the finalized plastic products you see on store shelves, but instead produces different plastic types such as polyethylene or polypropylene into the form of bead-like pellets smaller than your pinky nail. Once the raw material is in transportable form as a nurdle, they send them off to companies that make plastic products where they are then melted down and put into molds to form anything from single-use bottles to reusable home items.

How do they get into our waterways?

Unfortunately, many nurdles never get made into usable items at all. There are flaws in both their design and transport that cause them to get loose in the environment. Due to their size and shape, nurdles are easily picked up by wind causing them to spill over or blow away as they are being loaded onto trucks or shipping containers. Once on the ground nurdles easily travel with rainwater to drainage pipes or streams where they travel to larger water bodies. They also regularly enter large bodies of water via shipping container accidents while being transported across lakes or oceans. Containers spill over or are not sealed properly; even the tiniest crack allows millions of nurdles to spill out.

“...their small, round and clear appearance looks incredibly similar to fish eggs — an important part of many animals’ diets. Fish and shore birds gobble nurdles up, mistaking them for a nutritious meal. ”

How/why are nurdles harmful?

Once in the water, nurdles are magnets to toxic pollutants, over time absorbing dangerous concentrations of chemicals. Also, their small, round and clear appearance looks incredibly similar to fish eggs — an important part of many animals’ diets. Fish and shore birds gobble nurdles up, mistaking them for a nutritious meal. Ingesting many nurdles is harmful to the animals, both from the chemicals they are then exposed to that the nurdles absorbed and from starvation as their stomachs feel full of plastic.

What can you do?

Together we can collect data to bring light to nurdle pollution through Nurdle Patrol. Watch this video on how to conduct a quick 10-minute survey at a fresh or saltwater beach near you and input your findings in the Nurdle Patrol app on any device. Data collected through this app has impacted policies regarding how facilities manage their nurdles in the gulf of Texas and, as of 2021, Shedd’s Conservation Action Team has been guiding volunteers in surveying many of our coastal Shedd Aquarium Action Days along Lake Michigan!

Collectively we can shed light on this issue and bring forth policies to drive industry changes.