Have you ever found a nurdle floating in a creek, wedged between rocks, or even inside a hooked fish? Nurdles are oat-sized dots of plastic that serve as building blocks for most of the plastic items we buy in stores. Despite their cute name, they are often dumped into our waterways with ugly consequences. Nurdles accumulate toxins and enter the food web like little poison lentils as animals mistake them for a meal, and remain intact for centuries. Even worse, it can be difficult to track who exactly is spilling these artificial gems into our rivers, creeks, and lakes, due to their lightweight and miniature makeup, which allows them to be carried fast and far from point sources.
This is why the Mountain Watershed Association (MWA) has started to track nurdle pollution in our waterways, establishing a baseline of testing this fall. A coalition of MWA staff, the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper, and volunteers from Earthworks, BCMAC, and Climate Reality—known collectively as the “nurdle turtles”—set out on the water to begin sampling for macro and micro plastics in ecosystems critical to our communities’ health. Using a manta trawl (pictured below) the group sampled five channels in the Mon, Allegheny, Ohio, and Beaver rivers, upstream and downstream from potential sources of pollution.
MWA is not the first group to organize this kind of testing. The official nurdle patrol group is a citizen science project based in Texas, which encourages other research groups to submit data to source a larger, more comprehensive map of nurdle pollution in the United States. To stop the spread of these toxic pellets they recommend that companies involved in the plastic industry sign the voluntary pledge of Operation Clean Sweep, which includes strategies to contain nurdle pollution. The group successfully won a $50 million settlement over a nurdle pollution case from Formosa Plastics Corporation USA, which will go toward environmental mitigation and continued patrols.
On October 28th, the first MWA nurdle patrol squad set out from Pittsburgh’s South Side boat launch. Grey skies and a biting drizzle over the Mon river left the water black and glassy while we worked out the best methods for sample collection. According to protocol, the manta trawl, whose square mouth floats on the surface, would collect particles in the collection bucket for ten minutes in each channel before being emptied. Then we would wash the net and bucket three times to clear the filters with a pressurized nozzle.
After collection, we placed physical and liquid samples in freezer bags, then double-bagged them for security. For next time, the nurdle turtles decided to bring along glass jars with rubber gaskets instead, since plastic bags contain nano-plastics (though not macro or micro plastics, the chief interest of this study). House Representative Sara Innamorato also joined the team, an advocate for closing hazardous waste loopholes in Pennsylvania, helping to lug up the bucket and sort the samples. Though data analysis will not begin until winter, volunteers spotted dozens of micro plastics in the bagged samples visible to the naked eye.
The second day of testing took place in Beaver County, along the Ohio and Beaver rivers on an unusually warm November 9th. Autumn leaves overhead paved the water bronze, but despite the beautiful forest and the rural surroundings, plenty of micro and macro plastics bobbed along lazily with the current. We sampled near industries such as the half-finished ethylene cracker plant, which is set to be the largest in North America and will produce nurdles from fracked natural gas. Analysis will take place this winter and will confirm whether or not nurdles and other plastics were discovered in significant quantities.
With our data safe in twenty-five heavy bags, MWA’s next step will be to analyze the samples using sifters and low-powered microscopes. After establishing a baseline of plastic presence in these rivers, we can report fluctuations in nurdle levels to hold corporations responsible for their pollution. Without a baseline, it would be more difficult to successfully assert that the spills can be attributed to new activity at a specific manufacturer and point source. Better yet, plastic samples could provide solid physical evidence, even as smog, flora, and fauna fade—because these hacky-sack beans never crumble.
If you’ve noticed any nurdle pollution in the Youghiogheny Watershed, or if you have any questions, please reach out to James at MWA at 725-455-4200×10# or firstname.lastname@example.org.