Nurdles are the smallest plastic pellets, which make up a significant percentage of ocean waste. These are the pre-production pellets that are the building blocks for all plastic products and are transported globally to be melted and moulded into everything from bottles to pipelines. But on their journey, the tiny plastic beads can spill from shipping containers – and wind up all over the world's beaches, rivers, and ocean waters. Once loose, they pollute the natural environment by accumulating toxic chemicals and harm wildlife that mistake them for food.
A recent incident in Sri Lanka saw a cargo ship that was transporting nurdles sink and release its contents into the pristine waters of the country, resulting in an ensuing marine pollution disaster. The resulting sea-based pollution event was the worst in the country's history. The country's government and environmental NGOs have since demanded that the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which regulates global shipping, classify nurdles as hazardous in order to prevent future spillages.
Sadly, this request has been ignored by the IMO. However, organisations such as the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Port Aransas, Texas, are fighting to change this. Jace Tunnell, reserve director at the centre, has been collecting data and mapping the abundance of nurdles along Texas' coastline. His findings show that high concentrations of the plastic pellets can be found at riverbanks, at plastic manufacturing sites, along railway tracks used to transport them, and at processing plants. This data allows environmental regulators to investigate potential pollution sources.