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Nurdles: the manmade killers plaguing our oceans

Chris Hitchings

Social Media Lead, BBC Springwatch

Kimmeridge Bay on the Jurassic coast is a favourite spot for treasure hunters.

Fossils lie hidden in ancient stone tombs, waiting to be cracked open for their first glimpse of the sun in millions of years, and as the tide recedes a myriad of rock pools are revealed, all harbouring a unique treasure trove of marine life waiting to be explored.

But amongst the seaweed and pebbles of the foreshore another colourful hoard can be found. Hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of plastic, called nurdles, can also be found on the beach here.

They might not look much, but these tiny building blocks of the plastic industry can be catastrophic for wildlife, and unlike larger pieces of plastic they cam often go unnoticed.

Nurdles are the raw product that makes up most plastic products. Melted down they are easily reformed into the more familiar coffee cups, food packaging and plastic bags that we consume every day.

And it’s their inconspicuous size that also makes them so dangerous. Industrial accidents and spillages happen easily are almost impossible to contain, meaning that every day millions of these plastic fragments enter the water system and find their way to the sea.

In 2008 Dorset Wildlife Trust started a project to count how many of the pieces of plastic washed up at its beach at Kimmeridge, and the nurdle-o-meter was born. Within a few years the tally quickly rose to an astonishing 350,000 pieces of plastic found on this short stretch of coastline.

Thousands of plastic nurdles in a container at the Kimmeridge visitor centre. Image: Chris Hitchings

"When visitors come to the beach they can get a paper cup to collect the pieces of plastic in and then bring them back to the centre," explains Emma Rance from Dorset Wildlife Trusts.

"How many we get really depends on the tides when we get a big storm there can be plenty brought in from the sea. They sit on the beach and then we have to go and collect them - otherwise, they're a danger to wildlife that lives in and around the bay.”

"One winter the beach was white" explains Emma. But it wasn't a Christmas snowfall that caused the change of colour, it was nurdles washed up by the sea.

Why are nurdles such an issue? 

Nurdles are around the size of a lentil, so it's easy to see how they can be mistaken for a meal. Once in the sea there they are easily digested by marine animals, especially filter feeders such as mussels. These bivalves feed by passing seawater through a series of siphons and filtering any passing morsel from the water.

It’s a simple mechanism, but one that doesn’t allow the mussel to differentiate between food and plastic; and a recent study by scientists found that an astonishing 60% of mussels off the south coast of England had plastic in them.

But it’s not just the filters feeders that find it hard to distinguish plastic from food - fish and seabird struggle too.

Kimmeridge Bay and the Clavell Tower, Dorset. Image: John Wines

"One winter the beach was white" explains Emma. But it wasn't a Christmas snowfall that caused the change of colour, it was nurdles washed up by the sea.

A sea anemone, captured at Kimmeridge Bay. Species like this live in rock pools along the beach. Image: grumpy.grams

Scientists working with seabirds in the North Sea found that fulmars have an average of 0.3g of plastic in their stomachs, much of that made up of nurdles. It might not sound that much, but to put it in context, it’s the equivalent of a human being weighing 80kg (around 12 stone) carrying around 30g of plastic in their stomach.

Upon entering the digestive system microplastics can get stuck. Eventually, the amount of plastic in an animal's system can build up - meaning it is unable to digest normal food and slowly dies of starvation.

Nurdles also have the added danger that they can carry potentially deadly levels of toxins. The Great Nurdle Hunt says that these pieces of plastic act like magnets, attracting and hanging on to dangerous chemicals like DDT and PCBs.

Like all plastics, the nurdles will never fully disappear or biodegrade either. The movement of the seas breaks them down into ever-smaller pieces of plastic, meaning smaller and smaller animals will see them as food and further exacerbate the problem from the bottom of the food chain up.

The nurdle-o-meter at Kimmeridge beach. Image: Chris Hitchings

Where are they coming from?

"It's really hard to say where they're coming from," says Emma Rance "but in 2007, when the MSE Napoli was grounded in Lyme Bay, we saw their numbers rise."

The container ship ran into trouble 46 miles off the Cornish coast in January 2007. The 62,000-tonne vessel was carrying a huge variety of cargo, from BMW motorbikes to ladies shoes, Bibles to 4x4 vehicles. Rough seas damaged her hull, allowing water to enter and before long 114 containers fell into the sea - along with their cargo.

Salvagers and scavengers rushed to retrieve the items that fell overboard - but Dorset Wildlife Trust says that not everything was collected.

"As far as we know, two containers that fell off contained nurdles," says Emma.

"They float on the sea, they're transported on the wind. They were found all along the coasts of Devon, Dorset and Cornwall."

But it's not just this part of the south-west that has a problem with nurdles.

The plastic pieces can be found on beaches right around the British Isles. The Great Nurdle Hunt reported in early 2017 that 73% of beaches it inspected had nurdles on them. It says that one beach in Cornwall more than 127,000 of the plastic pieces were collected.

The MSC Napoli listing heavily off the coast of Devon in 2007. Image by Steve Brien via BBC Devon.

What can you do about it?

It might seem like the nurdle problem is a long way from our every day existence, but put simply, almost every plastic product we use starts life as a nurdle, so part of the solution is to cut them off at the source – by reducing the amount of plastic we use in our day-to-day lives.

Dorset Wildlife Trusts advises to "avoid plastics as much as you can, and avoid single-use plastics at the source."

So when you're eating out, don't use plastic cutlery, avoid disposable coffee cups, don't use plastic bags to wrap your vegetables at the supermarket.

Like the visitors to Kimmeridge, another simple way to help is to collect and remove nurdles and other pieces of plastic from our beaches.

Beach cleaning hero Jan Wells does this every day as part of her 2MinuteBeachClean, and you might be surprised what she finds. Jan has discovered "Bottles, bags, ropes and nets" on her local stretch of coast. She once found "a Quaker Puffed Wheat Deputy badge from a 1958 promotion" balanced on a rock after a "belter of a storm" – testament to just how long plastics can survive in the marine environment.

If you want more ideas on how you can help, we've gathered some useful links around ocean conservation

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