What washes up on beaches always tells a story — from seaweed and algae to proverbial messages in bottles. But what happens when the building blocks of a plastic message-carrying bottle, and all the plastics in all the waterways of the world, wash up in their original form: as a nurdle? What stories does a nurdle tell? Where did it come from? Who made it? Why?
"A nurdle is a plastic pellet which serves as raw material in the manufacturing of plastic products," according to nurdlepatrol.com. These micro and nano-plastics are comprised of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, or other plastics. Nurdle. Nurdle. Nurdle. Saying it repeatedly is tongue-twisting and funny-sounding, yet nurdles are invasive and wreak havoc on the Earth.
Nurdles are in everything—from plastic bottles and cellphone cases to the keys I am touching to type these words. Nurdles are also everywhere — from Alpine snow drifts to sea life — damaging the ecosystem and impacting physical health. According to a study at the University of Arizona, nurdles have even been found in human organs. Nurdle Patrol names this pervasive and invasive phenomenon as plastic pellet pollution.
Citizen scientists on Mustang and North Padre Island deep in South Texas, near the U.S. and Mexico border, founded Nurdle Patrol in 2018 when a large number of small plastic pellets were found first on the beach, and later in local water supplies. Though the first documented nurdles were found in the early 1970s, the accumulation and expansion of plastic and other petroleum derivatives have led to nurdles being in oceans, on mountains, in the flora and fauna, as well as in the human body.
The project is sponsored and organized by the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Affiliated with the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, Texas, "the Reserve brings together scientists, landowners, policy-makers, and the public to ensure that coastal management decisions benefit flora and fauna, water quality, and people." Community stewardship of the ocean, bays, and other waterways inspires the goals of nurdle patrol: to map and gather information about where nurdles accumulate in order to trace their sources; remove nurdles from the environment; and educate the public about the hazards of nurdles in order to not continue to reproduce this problem.
In 2019, Jace Tunnell and Sam Sugarek, embarked on the Great Gulf Coast Nurdle Expedition to collect and map nurdle accumulations along the Texas Coast. The initial research from the project was published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Pollution Bulletin in the Spring of 2020.
You can start your own Nurdle Patrol! In addition to the video about the Great Gulf Coast Nurdle Expedition, the webpage links to videos like Nurdle Patrol Training 101, as well as an online portal to upload the data gathered from your local water source — be it a stream, an ocean, or any tributary. These direct-action projects by citizen scientists have also led to legislation with partners like the Surfrider Foundation Texas Coastal Bend Chapter to draft the Texas Nurdle Bill.
The website also has a free Teacher Nurdle Kit with an accompanying curriculum, as well as a starter kit for organizations. These efforts to map and remove pollution, and educate the public about the nurdle scourge also tell stories — stories about how we can come together to address the spreading of these toxic pellets in the environment and the human body, and reduce their production in the future.