Nurdles: A Toxic Plastic Problem

Every Year Spring brings Orkney folk  out to the road verges, loch sides and beaches to take part in Bag the Bruck. Tonnes of litter, mainly plastic is collected by volunteers and disposed of safely by Orkney Islands Council. Large items of litter are easy to spot, especially on our beaches where the plastic and rope stands out against the sandy shore.

What is much more difficult to see are the tiny pellets of plastic known as nurdles. These have become an increasing problem on the UK’s shores,however, many have not yet been discovered on Orkney. Maybe we have not been looking? Would  you know how to spot one?

What are nurdles?


nurdles can come in many different colours

Nurdles are tiny pellets of plastic about the size of a lentil. They come in lots of different colours. So very easy to pass by as you stroll along the beach.

Nurdles are used in the plastic industry where they are welded together to make a huge variety of products.  There have been some large spills of them and these are well reported. This occurs when a large shipping container is lost at sea and the contents of nurdles spill out.

What is not reported and is, therefore,impossible to quantify are the accidental spillages which occur on land.  This is where packaging comes loose, holes in skips let out not just rainwater, vacuum systems are not fully sealed and acts of vandalism damage otherwise secure containers.

Many spillages can be cleaned up but on uneven surfaces or with the action of the wind and rain, many are washed away eventually making their journey into our seas.

Nurdles attract toxins

Nurdles are so tiny that marine animals and sea birds consume them in the belief they are food. They are so small that this is affecting shellfish such as mussels and eventually through the food chain will end up in other animals. The nurdles, themselves, attract toxic pollutants which  become concentrated around them. This poison feeds into marine life. And remember many of us eat fish too.

A recent study for Fidra ( an environmental company based in North Berwick, Scotland) by Eunomia has made recommendations to government and industry in how to address  the nurdle problem. It  states:

“While our knowledge on the impacts on the environment and human health, and the costs associated with these impacts, is far from complete what we do know is that the more we find out, the worse things seem.”

“With no reason to suggest that future research will lead to reduced cause for concern, we feel there is merit in taking strong action now – within the bounds of reasonable costs – to prevent, to the extent possible, further losses of plastics (of all sizes) to the terrestrial and aquatic (freshwater and marine) environments.”

The research states:

“The British Plastics Federation (BPF) reports the following key figures on the UK Plastics Industry:

  • 6,200 companies in the plastics industry;
  • 5,200 manufacturers of plastic products;
  • 1.7m tonnes of material produced (from UK-based polymer suppliers);
  • 3.3m tonnes of plastic material processed at plastic converters; and
  • £23.5 billion plastic industry turnover.

What can be done?

Taking part in Operation Clean Sweep is the UK plastic industry’s response to the problem, however, the scheme is voluntary and is mainly subscribed to by the largest players in the industry. There is currently no economic incentive to clean up spillages.

As reported by the  Marine Conservation Society,  a recent study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that there were 46,000 pieces of plastic litter per square mile in the sea.

In 1992 twenty containers full of plastic ducks and other toys were lost overboard from a ship travelling from China to Seattle. By 1994 some of the toys had been tracked to Alaska, others reached Iceland in 2000. The toys have now been sighted in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Nurdles also float around in the sea and are driven around via currents. In the South of England thousands of nurdles have been found on the beaches. In Orkney, these tiny plastic particles are there, maybe not yet in large numbers, but they can be found.  And they are in the food chain.

Keep a look out next time you go a walk on the beach and join in the Great Nurdle Hunt

Reporter: Fiona Grahame








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