What Are Nurdles?
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 can cycle through the food web for centuries. Surface feeders including birds, turtles, and fish are likely to ingest nurdles. This can starve them, poison them or lead to digestive impaction, killing them.
Nurdle-eating fish caught and consumed may pass toxins up the food web to people. This is also true for eagles, herons, and other animals that predate on fish.
The Nurdle Patrol
To keep track of this threat, Mountain Watershed Association (MWA) and Three Rivers Waterkeeper (3RWK) conduct a regular patrol of the Ohio River in Beaver County for monitoring water quality and floating plastics.
The “nurdle patrol,” a local program initiated by MWA in 2020 and partnered with 3RWK in 2021, runs a water-based protocol including a trawl designed to capture suspended solids bobbing in the river at various sections of the waterway.
Since launching the seasonal float patrols, MWA has learned that nurdles have already infiltrated the waterways.
Common sources of spills may include train loading areas or factory unloading lots. Nurdles are likely washed away 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. Then, we keep them in bottles for future analysis.
To bolster our patrols, MWA works with several research labs at institutions including the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State Behrend, and Duquesne University. With their help and expertise, we are learning more about the nurdles trickling through our watershed. By passing on the captured plastics in glass vials, we are building a record of the types of plastic collected, the toxins “sponged” into local nurdles, and the wildlife that may be ingesting them.
In 2021, 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, after 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.
When you add your email address, we will send you a 2-minute video about how to conduct your own nurdle patrol, links to submit your findings to a database, and more. Enough data may help us pinpoint the source of nurdle releases and kick these sneaky plastic pellets out of our rivers!