Nurdles: The Unknown Toxic Plastic Pollutant That Is Overwhelming Marine Life

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These tiny plastic pellets are just about the size of lentils. But tens of billions of these particles are used in plastic products and ultimately are washed through storm drains to the oceans, and pollute our shores. The nurdles may be cute to look at, but they are the opposite of it. These particles also harbor dangerous bacteria and are responsible for poisoning marine animals like fish, crustaceans, and seabirds.

The nurdles are particularly dangerous due to their size and toxicity. Their clarity makes them attractive to marine creatures who mistake them for eggs. Once they enter the stomach, they cause ulceration and prevent them from eating nutritious food. The toxic chemicals that latch onto the nurdles make them potentially poisonous to these sea creatures.

Nurdles are the basic building blocks of everyday plastic products. Between 1 and 5 mm, these pellets are melted and molded into various kinds of products. But wastage during the production process causes them to be dumped into water bodies and they ultimately end up in the oceans and seas. They are also driven from the land by the wind, and by means of accidental industrial discharge.

Nurdles: The ‘Mermaid Tears’ Of The Oceans

The toxic pellets are at times called Mermaid Tears’. It seems an appropriate name when you consider the harms it does to the marine world. These pellets are coated with toxic chemicals and are ingested by marine life for their convenient size and attractive colors. They are also the breeding ground of POPs, persistent organic pollutants. These toxins are ingested by marine animals. Their persistence makes them stick to the surface for long periods.

Microbes also grow on these tiny pellets and are potentially harmful to humans. Nurdles washed ashore on the beaches make sunbathing by the seaside a potentially hazardous activity. Their toxicity even makes them dangerous to people who clean beaches or handle them while conducting a scientific survey. 


Five beaches that were tested for these toxic substances in Scotland have come up with an alarming fact. They all had E.coli on the surface. The bacterium is responsible for a majority of food poisoning cases and can be fatal in many cases.

Nurdles continue to be dumped into the oceans at an alarming rate. The UK alone dumps 53 billion of these particles into the oceans. That is equal to the plastic used to make 88 million plastic bottles. Therefore it comes as a surprise that the menace posed by nurdles is rarely discussed when the issue of plastic pollution comes up.

6000 companies in the UK alone produce, import, and convert the nurdles into plastic products. When you consider the whole of Europe, around 60,000 companies are using the tiny pellets.

Conservative estimates put the total nurdles dumped into the oceans at around 230,000 tons annually.

Hunting For The Dangerous Nurdles

Spillage of the nurdles occurs at every stage of the production process of plastic products. Their lightweight and tiny size make them float easily. They are washed, blown, and brushed into water bodies and ultimately end up in the seas and oceans. They can be found in every sea and ocean from the middle of the Pacific to the Arctic circle.

Organizations such as the FIDRA, the Marine Conservation Society, and other organizations have been at the forefront in encouraging people to collect data on the pellets strewn across beaches across the world.

Read: Plastic Straws Become A New Threat As Plastic Pollution Strangles Marine Life

These data collected from various sources prove invaluable in identifying the main source of the pollutants. The involvement of hundreds of volunteers strewn across the world helps in gathering accurate information. A concentrated hunt is conducted for the nurdles for 10 days every February.

The findings collected by the volunteer citizens are collected on a global scale that helps the organization to determine the magnitude of nurdle contamination across the planet. It also gives an accurate picture of the changes that have occurred over time.


Started in 2012, the search has been extended to 1610 beaches spread over 6 continents covering 18 countries. 60 organizations are directly involved in the hunt for the nurdles.

 The Microplastic and Forensic Fibre Research Group of Staffordshire University in the UK as part of the research teams in 2019. The researchers participated in the study to determine the density of nurdles pollution in Liverpool’s Hightown Beach. 139.8 bits of nurdles were found per square meter on average. That comes to around 140,000 pieces of nurdles over a kilometer of the beach being littered during every high tide.

Every citizen can become a part of the worldwide research group. There are online guides to identify the nurdles that strew the beach along with other objects that may be similar looking, including BB gun pellets, polystyrene balls, or fossils.

Read: Plastic Pollution May Have Reached The Point Of No Return

Checking marine debris and stranded seaweeds is a good way to find nurdles. They act as a trap for these toxic pellets. Submit the data collected in the proper format to an appropriate survey forum which will help them identify and study our data and include it in their huge database.

Nurdles can be found in every coastal region around the earth. To avoid any accidental contact with shiny but virulent objects, be sure to take protective measures and seek medical advice if you face any health issues. Wearing gloves will eliminate the need to run to a doctor.

You need to remember that these tiny objects are a cocktail of dangerous chemicals. They might contain heavy metals or contaminants such as fossil fuels which makes them harmful for humans. They also contain harmful additives like dyes, plasticizers, and phthalates.

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