Nurdles are small plastic pellets that are causing a big problem. But citizen scientists are fighting back. In this episode, we talk with Jace Tunnell, Director of the Mission Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, about how the Nurdle Patrol is taking on these problematic pellets, and how you can get involved.
HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast. I’m Abby Reid. In this episode, we’re going to talk about nurdles. While the name may sound kind of funny, the problems they cause are no laughing matter. Nurdles are a type of microplastic. Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters. Microplastics are so small that sometimes they’re hard to see with the naked eye.
Nurdles are small plastic pellets which serve as raw material in the production of plastic products. Everything from plastic bags to car parts are made up of nurdles. These small pellets are causing a big problem. Nurdles are washing up on our beaches by the millions, and marine animals are eating them, thinking that they’re food.
I spoke with Jace Tunnell, Director of the Mission Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, in Port Aransas,Texas, about these problematic pellets. Mission Aransas is part of a nationwide network of reserves run as a partnership between coastal states and NOAA. Jace and his staff started a citizen science project to collect usable data about nurdles and help address the problems that they’re causing. It’s called the Nurdle Patrol, and you can be a part of it.
Here’s Jace to tell you all about it.
JACE TUNNELL: My name is Jace Tunnell, and I’m the Reserve director at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, where I direct a program called the Mission Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve.
HOST: Could you share a little bit of history about nurdles, the nurdle patrol, and NOAA’s role in it?
JACE TUNNELL: Nurdles are these tiny plastic pellets that are the basis of everything plastic, and they started mass producing these uh back in the 1940s and 50s, when you know all the cutlery and all the kitchenware and everything was coming out uh was plastic. And from there we started making almost everything out of plastic, and so the production of these has just gone way up. But these are small, and so they’re able to go into the machinery that’s able to melt it down, add color to it, and then blow it into an actual shape of a product that's made. And so that’s kind of the history of it.
Nurdle Patrol got started back in late 2018, and it started with a spill of nurdles that was found on the beach there in Corpus Christi, Texas, and so we actually estimated that there was 300,000 to 1,000,000 pellets per mile for at least a 30 mile range. So that’s what started the Nurdle Patrol. We just wanted a few people to step up and say look, we’ll go out monthly, we’ll look at these beaches, see where the nurdles have moved to, and how far they’ve spread.
So what we ended up doing was getting on Facebook and starting a Nurlde Patrol site so that we could all communicate. And it turned out there was so much interest. There was people in Florida, there was people in Mississippi, there was organizations down in Mexico that wanted to know if these pellets were gonna come up on their beach. And so everybody was emailing me the data and then monthly I would put it on a map to show the concentrations. Well that got to be uh really overwhelming because of the numbers of volunteers that were going out and collecting data from all over the Gulf of Mexico to where I was getting 300 to 500 emails a month. Just on that. You know I have another job that I’m doing too.
HOST: Right, right.
JACE TUNNELL: So uh, we ended up starting up Nurdlepatrol.org, and it’s an interactive map where people can put their data into it and it automatically shows up. It’s real easy to conduct a survey. So we, I always tell people, “walk all the way down to the water line,” but most of the time you’re going to see em’ at the new high tide line. And then, if you find a nurdle, you uh start your clock and for ten minutes you look for other nurdles. And then at the end of that ten minutes you count how many pellets you have and then that’s the data you need to be able to put into Nurdlepatrol.org.
What’s cool about this is they put there data in there then they can zoom into their community, see all the other data that people have put in plus theirs, and then they can either print it digitally, or they can print it hard copy then they can go show their elected officials, then they can go show the state agencies and say look, this is a problem in our community.
Any uh, organization can start a Nurdle Patrol in their own community, and so it’s been an invaluable tool. And so NOAA, they fund 70 percent of our operations here at the Mission Aransas Reserve. And so one of our main tasks at the reserve here is to educate folks, and to collect science that’s going towards an end user. And so you know, we’re collecting this applied science that is then being transferred into something that management decisions can be made from. And this is a perfect example of that.
HOST: Ok, thank you. So you’re based in Texas. Are nurdles specific to a particular geographic region, or can they be found all over?
JACE TUNNELL: Nurdles are everywhere. And so even these Bay systems where there aren’t any manufacturing sites, or there’s no fabrication sites or distribution centers for these plastic pellets, we’re finding nurdles up in there. And that's because how nurdles get into the waterway is through the stormwater, you know runoff events, they get into the river streams, and then they get into the Bays, and then ultimately out into the ocean and be pushed back up onto the shorelines.
So if you look along the shorelines of um say the Gulf of Mexico, what you find is typically pretty uniform, at least here in Texas. What’s pretty common is you can find 20 to 200 pellets within, within a 10 minute period. But then, you know, whenever you get to the Bay systems that actually have the manufacturing sites in em’, you start finding really high concentrations. Concentrations from 100 to over 1,000 in a ten minute period. And the highest concentrations we’ve seen are 30,000 pellets in a ten minute period. And that’s up in the Bay systems with the highest concentrations, the manufacturing sites, like Galveston Bay
HOST: 30,000?? Ugh.
JACE TUNNELL: Right, that’s a — and we’ve actually got a number of different sites where we find really high concentrations up in the Galveston Bay system. And there’s some beaches there that they find pretty regularly over 15,000 pellets within a 10 minute period.
HOST: Wow. What are the biggest impacts of nurdles on the environment?
JACE TUNNELL: Most likely the biggest impact of these things is wildlife eating em’. So, there was a study the EPA had done back in the early 1990s that listed over 80 species of birds that they knew at the time that uh were eating these pellets. They also listed uh necropsies of sea turtles and the pellets were found in the gut, intestinal tract of the sea turtles. And then we know that fish eat these as well. And that wa, you know, a couple of decades ago.
And so we know even more now. And so one is, you know, if, if these animals eat enough of these pellets they could starve to death. Most of the time if they eat one or two or something it’s probably just passing through their system, but if they eat enough of em’ they feel like they’re full and there's no nutritional value to these pellets, uh, for the animal. And then the other is that these pellets, they absorb harmful chemicals. Now I’d like to point out that the link has not been made yet from when a an animal, like a fish, uh eats these pellets and the transfer of those chemicals into the muscle tissue that we actually eat. That link has not been made yet, but with the technology that we have now, you know it’s probably just a matter of time, maybe a few more years, we might actually have that answer.
HOST: Yeah, I mean I wouldn’t feel good about eating a, a fish that had a bunch of chemical-filled pellets in its stomach.
JACE TUNNELL: Right, no, yeah, you shouldn’t. Laughter.
HOST: Um, so, can you think of a story or an anecdote that happened during a nurdle patrol, or as a result of Nurdle Patrol data? Anything that, you know, that might really grab our listeners’ attention?
JACE TUNNELL: Well I think one of the most inspirational stories that I’ve heard about plastic pellets being collected is by Diane Wilson, she’s out of Seadrift, Texas, and she was a, a shrimper for many years. And she’s a retired shrimper. And she saw a lot of pellets uh floating around in the bay. And she got her and the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeepers together, and they started sampling these pellets. And it was right at a discharge where there’s a big plastic manufacturing site. And so, they collected pellets for three years or something like that, and then finally um got a lawsuit against this plastics company for discharging these pellets into this water body. And they ended up uh winning the lawsuit of $50,000,000. And then all $50,000,000 are going back into that community to, to help people that are living there with their quality of life, and doing new research on plastics and things like that.
And so you know it was one lady that saw that there was a problem, and started going out and collecting data. And she was able to totally transform not only that company, because they’re going to have to do $30,000,000 worth of engineering on that site to prevent pellets from getting into the water, but that company also agreed to have zero pellet discharge from coming through their stormwater in the future.
Everybody can have a, a huge impact if they put their mind to it.
HOST: That is a really inspiring story. Now just for clarification, she didn’t involve the Nurdle Patrol in this, but it’s related.
JACE TUNNELL: The data that she collected over the three years, Nurdle Patrol started up within the last six months of the trial that they had, and they were able to use Nurdle Patrol data as a way to be able to show, look, these concentrations that are being found near the manufacturing site are way higher than you’re finding anywhere along the Gulf beaches. And so that that could be a possible source of the, where the pellets are coming from.
HOST: Why is the Nurdle Patrol important to you personally?
JACE TUNNELL: This has to do with the next generation. And so I take my kids to the beach. I’d like them to be able to look for shells, and count birds, and get into clean water and things like that. Not be out there picking up plastic pellets off the beach so that the animals aren’t gonna eat em’.
We are old enough to be able to make a decision and work with our elected officials to be able to prevent these pellets from getting into the environment. It can be done. It’s an engineering solution. And we owe it to the next generation, and the generation after that, to take it on and make the changes now.
What we’d like to do is expand this to the East Coast, the West Coast, up the Mississippi River and into the Great Lakes. And to really make this a national program that you can see the big picture. And so I think that, you know, by seeing the big picture, we’re really going to make a bigger impact not only state by state, but on a national level.
HOST: Jace, is there anything that you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?
JACE TUNNELL: It only takes one person to be able to have an impact. If you look at a lot of the big conservation efforts that start out, lots of times it starts out with one passionate person. And so everybody can play a role in having a big impact.
HOST: By conducting your own nurdle surveys, and sending in your data to the Nurdle Patrol, you can help scientists gather information about where nurdles are, and help remove them from the environment.