In the water, nurdles can be mistaken for a bubble. On land, they look like a rounded quartz pebble. But unlike quartz, they float and leach toxins into the water, and unlike bubbles, they end up in the guts of fish, never decaying. Nurdles are a product, not a waste material; they are usually melted down into any plastic commodity you can name, from action figures to single-use bags. It doesn’t save businesses money on disposal to spill them into waterways — it’s just negligent.
This fall marked the one-year anniversary of Mountain Watershed Association’s “nurdle patrol,” an effort to monitor waterways near the yet unfinished Shell cracker plant in Beaver County.
Like last fall, the October patrol began in chilling, foggy conditions, on a small motorboat. Skimming the water’s surface, MWA’s manta trawl (pictured below) caught floating debris in a particular sliver of river. This time, the craft fit four surveyors rather than eight, and zipped along the Ohio River all the quicker. Volunteers from 3-Rivers Waterkeeper and Allegheny Cleanways joined in on the outing.
Since launching the seasonal float patrols last year, MWA has learned that nurdles have already tainted our waterways. Common sources of spills may include train loading areas or factory unloading lots. They are likely washed into our rivers during heavy rains, sticking to larger debris where they hitch a ride to new shores. We capture them by running our trawl in a specific channel of the river for fifteen minutes with a plankton net streaming behind, storing any material larger than 5 microns.
Earlier this year, MWA connected with the Charleston Waterkeeper, Andrew Wunderley, who is involved in a nurdle pollution settlement. After Andrew found, collected, and tracked nurdles spilled from rail lines during loading and shipping, which subsequently blew into the bay, he was able to come to an agreement that helped clean up the shore. He noted that he often found egg-like clusters of nurdles on land stuck to the undersides of other floating solids such as sticks or leaves.
Taking Andrew’s advice, in the year since launching our first nurdle “float” patrols, MWA has also started monitoring nurdle numbers on the riverbanks. We do this by using an adapted protocol developed by nurdlepatrol.org. This protocol includes using timed sessions and storage in numerated vials for future analysis. Additionally, this sampling method has added to the depth and clarity of our nurdle patrols, which in turn allows it to occur much more frequently. As the cracker plant nears completion, slated for production in 2022, MWA hopes to continue bolstering our rigorous baseline testing to hold the mega-producer accountable in the case of widespread pollution.
Seen or heard about nurdles in your waterways? Contact James Cato at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text 412-405-1077.