While the term “nurdles” sounds like a cute name for a cuddly creature from a fantasy or sci-fi novel, in the real world the term actually means something far different and much more dangerous to human health. Nurdles is a colloquial term used to describe the billions of pre-production building blocks from which all our plastic products are made. Nurdles “are tiny beads made up of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride” and other plastic precursors that are ultimately molded into the final plastic products in use throughout the world. And nurdles are incredibly toxic to the environment and to life itself.
Nurdles are highly persistent pollutants that act like toxic sponges – soaking up and concentrating harmful chemicals and even bacteria like E. coli and cholera on their surface. Nurdles get released into the environment from the plastic plants themselves or when shipped around the world as raw material to plastics production facilities. Nurdles are the second-largest source of micropollutants in the ocean (after tire dust) and some 230,000 tons of nurdles end up in oceans every year. There have been disastrous nurdle spills from shipping vessels, like the one last May off the coast of Sri Lanka or the two last year in the North Sea and South Africa. And lest anyone believe this is simply a far flung problem, Texas has had its share of nurdle-related environmental problems as well.
Nurdles are often mistaken for food by marine wildlife and have consistently been discovered in the mouths of fish and in the bodies of dead whales and dolphins. Once released into the environment, nurdles further break down into nanoparticles, making their hazard potential even more complex. As Tom Gammage, of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) explains, “[p]ollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of [nurdles] than in the water,” [a]nd we know from lab studies that when a fish eats a pellet, some of those pollutants come loose.”. Those pollutants can then be absorbed by humans through consumption of nurdle-contaminated seafood.
The environment harm from plastic pellets has been well-understood for at least three decades. However, nurdles are still not classified as hazardous materials by the International Maritime Organization. Doing so would make nurdles subject to much stricter conditions for transport and bring them under disaster-response protocols that could help prevent the worst environmental harms from the big spills that continue to occur.
Nurdles are yet another global problem that impacts all of us, and if you want to get active to have nurdles classified as the hazardous materials they are, you should contact your state and federal representatives and voice your concerns. In the meantime, if you believe your health has been impacted from exposure to microplastics, you should contact an experienced law firm right away to explore your rights.