Plastic resin pellet pollution

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Nurdles on a beach in southwest France, 2011.

Plastic resin pellet pollution is a type of marine debris originating from plastic particles utilized in manufacturing large-scale plastics. These pre-production plastic pellets are created separately from the user plastics they are melted down to form, and pellet loss is incurred during both the manufacturing and transport stages.[1] Commonly referred to as nurdles, these plastics are released into the open environment, creating pollution in the oceans and on beaches.[2]


A handful of nurdles, spilled from a train in Pineville, Louisiana, in the United States

Plastic resin pellets are classified as primary source microplastics, meaning that they were intentionally produced at the size ranging from 1–5 mm in diameter.[3] Approximately 27 million tonnes (60 billion pounds) of nurdles are manufactured annually in the United States.[4] One pound of pelletized HDPE contains approximately 25,000 nurdles (approximately 20 mg per nurdle). They are typically under 5 mm (0.20 in) in diameter.[5]

Environmental impact[edit]

Nurdles are a major contributor to marine debris. During a three-month study of Orange County beaches researchers found them to be the most common beach contaminant.[6] Nurdles on bathing beaches in East Lothian, Scotland have been shown to be covered with E. coli and Vibrio biofilms, according to a 2019 study.[7][8]

Waterborne nurdles may either be a raw material of plastic production, or from larger chunks of plastics.[9] A major concentration of plastic may be the Great Pacific garbage patch, a growing collection of marine debris known for its high concentrations of plastic litter.

Nurdles that escape from the plastic production process into waterways or oceans have become a significant source of ocean and beach plastic pollution. Plastic pellet pollution that has been monitored in studies is mainly found in the sediments and beach areas and is usually polyethylene or polypropylene, the two main plastic polymers found in microplastic pollution.[10]

Nurdles have frequently been found in the digestive tracts of various marine creatures, causing physiological damage by leaching plasticizers such as phthalates. Nurdles can carry two types of micropollutants in the marine environment: native plastic additives and hydrophobic pollutants absorbed from seawater. For example, concentrations of PCBs and DDE on nurdles collected from Japanese coastal waters were found to be up to 1 million times higher than the levels detected in surrounding seawater.[11]

Plastic microbeads used in cosmetic exfoliating products are also found in water.



San Francisco Bay Coastal Cleanup from multiple nurdle spills.[12]

In Hong Kong, after being blown by Typhoon Vicente on 24 July 2012, some containers belonging to Chinese oil giant Sinopec which were carrying over 150 tonnes of plastic pellets were blown into the sea, washing up on southern Hong Kong coasts, such as Shek O, Cheung Chau, Ma Wan and Lamma Island. The spill disrupted marine life and is being credited with killing stocks of fish on fish farms.[13]


A nurdle spill of about two billion nurdles (49 tons) from a shipping container in Durban Harbor required extended cleanup efforts.[14] These nurdles have also been spotted washing up on the shore in Western Australia.[15]

The Great Nurdle Hunt, which occurred June 2–5, 2017, across the United Kingdom drew attention to the issue of plastic pellet pollution. A program started by Fidra, a Scottish environmental charity, sourced information on nurdles from citizens across the region using shared photos to better understand the makeup of pollution across beaches in the UK.[16] The nurdle hunts occurring earlier in 2017 determined that 73% of UK beaches had nurdle pollution.[17]


A semi-truck crash led to the release of bright blue colored nurdles into Pocono Creek and the waterways of the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.[18]


During a thunderstorm on August 20th, a 40-foot (12 m) shipping container with 25 tons of nurdles fell off the CMA CGM Bianca ship into the Mississippi River in New Orleans. No official clean up took place. Hazardous material spills are in coast guard jurisdiction, but nurdles are not classified as hazardous material. The Department of Environmental Quality does not find it clear as to who is responsible for cleaning up the spill.[19]


On 2 June 2021 the cargo ship X-Press Pearl sank off the coast of Sri Lanka, spilling chemicals and microplastic nurdles and causing the worst environmental disaster in the country's history.[20]

Current progress and solutions[edit]

The plastic industry has responded to the increased interest and concern for plastic pellet loss and pollution sources. Operation Clean Sweep was created by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association in 2001 and joined by the American Chemistry Council with the goal of zero pellet loss for plastic manufacturers.[21] This voluntary stewardship program provides its members with a manual which guides them through ways in which they can reduce pellet loss within their own facilities and provides the necessary training.[22][23] However, the program does not require companies to keep or report any data on pellet spills.[24]

In 2008, California passed a "nurdle law", which "specifically names pre-production plastic pellets (nurdles) as a pollutant".[25]

Actions for creating awareness[edit]

On April 11, 2013 in order to create awareness, artist Maria Cristina Finucci founded The Garbage Patch State at UNESCO[26] –Paris in front of Director General Irina Bokova. It is the first of a series of events under the patronage of UNESCO and of Italian Ministry of the Environment.[27]

The Great Nurdle Hunt is a citizen science project that maps out plastic pellet pollution globally. The data collected is used to actively engage with industry and policy-makers to develop solutions to prevent further pellet pollution.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What's resin pellet? :: International Pellet Watch". Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  2. ^ Hammer, Jort; Kraak, Michiel H. S.; Parsons, John R. (2012). Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. 220. Springer, New York, NY. pp. 1–44. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-3414-6_1. ISBN 9781461434139. PMID 22610295.
  3. ^ GESAMP (2015). “Sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: a global assessment” (Kershaw, P. J., ed.). (IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/UNIDO/WMO/IAEA/UN/UNEP/UNDP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection). Rep. Stud. GESAMP No. 90, 96 p.
  4. ^ "Heal the Bay - The Pacific Protection Initiative - AB 258: Nurdles". 20 April 2008. Archived from the original on 20 April 2008.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  5. ^ "What's a nurdle?". 7 November 2006. Archived from the original on 2009-12-21. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
  6. ^ Moore, Charles (2002). "A comparison of neustonic plastic and zooplankton abundance in southern California's coastal waters and elsewhere in the North Pacific". Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Archived from the original on 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2008-02-07.
  7. ^ Gwinnett, Claire (2019-02-17). "The major source of plastic pollution you've probably never heard of". Fast Company. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  8. ^ Rodrigues, Alyssa; et al. (2019). "Colonisation of plastic pellets (nurdles) by E. coli at public bathing beaches" (PDF). Marine Pollution Bulletin. 139: 376–380. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2019.01.011. hdl:1893/28461. PMID 30686440.
  9. ^ Ayre, Maggie (7 December 2006). "Plastics 'poisoning world's seas'". BBC Online. BBC News.
  10. ^ GESAMP (2015). “Sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: a global assessment” (Kershaw, P. J., ed.). (IMO/FAO/UNESCO-IOC/UNIDO/WMO/IAEA/UN/UNEP/UNDP Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection). Rep. Stud. GESAMP No. 90, 96 p.2007, chapter 9, ISBN 978-0-312-34729-1
  11. ^ Mato Y: "Plastic resin pellets as a transport medium for toxic chemicals in the marine environment", "Environmental Science & Technology" 35(2), pages 318–324, 2001
  12. ^ Freese, Alicia. "Nurdles a big problem in coastal cleanup". Bay Nature. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  13. ^ "Sinopec pledges help to clear Hong Kong plastic spill". 9 August 2012. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
  14. ^ "Nurdles KZN, SA. Project Duration: Long Term". Coast KZN. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  15. ^ "The Great Nurdle Disaster: What to do if you find nurdles". Two Oceans Aquarium Cape Town, South Africa. 2 November 2018. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  16. ^ "The Great European Nurdle Hunt" (PDF). Nurdle Free Oceans. Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  17. ^ Association, Press (2017-02-17). "Tiny plastic pellets found on 73% of UK beaches". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  18. ^ Thompson, Carol. "Thousands of plastic pellets have spilled into waterways in Poconos: 'This is going to be extremely challenging'". The Morning Call. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  19. ^ Baurick, Tristan. "No cleanup planned as millions of plastic pellets wash up along Mississippi River and flow to the Gulf". Retrieved 2020-10-07.
  20. ^ "Sri Lanka faces disaster as burning ship spills chemicals on beaches". the Guardian. 2021-05-31. Retrieved 2021-05-31.
  21. ^ "Operation Clean Sweep Celebrates 25 Years | In The Hopper: SPI's Business Blog". In The Hopper: SPI's Business Blog. Archived from the original on 2016-12-27. Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  22. ^ "OCS Program Manual - Operation Clean Sweep". Operation Clean Sweep. Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  23. ^ Entwistle, Abigail (April 11, 2018). "Why the fuss about nurdles?". Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  24. ^ Sullivan, Laura (December 22, 2020). "Gas, Oil Companies Like Chevron Phillips Have A Plastic Pellet Problem". Retrieved December 24, 2020.
  25. ^ Westervelt, Amy (2015-03-27). "It's taken seven years, but California is finally cleaning up microbead pollution". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  26. ^ "The garbage patch territory turns into a new state - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization".
  27. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-11-03. Retrieved 2014-11-03.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

Further reading[edit]