Oodles of nurdles not so good
by Bill Chameides | October 1st, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
Nicholas School alumnus Nick Mallos (R) shows the nurdles he found at Cannon Beach on August 4, 2012, to Cannon Beach City Manager Rick Mays (L) and the Japan Environmental Action Network’s Azusa Kojima (C). (Photo credit: Steve Dipaola)
The sorry story of the nurdle.
The story starts with plastic, well, plastic pollution actually. We’re all familiar with the problem. Plastic soda bottles filling up landfills, plastic shopping bags clogging up sewer systems, and a sea of plastic trash floating in the middle of the ocean. It’s a problem of post-consumer garbage. We use the plastic stuff and then let it foul things up.
In the ocean the sun’s UV rays break the plastic down into ever smaller pieces, but most synthetic plastics never quite go away completely (at least not in meaningful time frames). (See here, here, here and here.) So what about biodegradable plastics? They’re designed to break down on land; in the ocean, they don’t degrade “at appreciable rates.” OK, so maybe if we could just recycle all the plastic, the problem of plastic pollution would be history, right? Well … no.
It turns out that in addition to post-consumer plastic pollution, we have a problem with what you might call pre-consumer plastic pollution.
From petroleum to nurdle to soda bottle
In the beginning there was petroleum and natural gas—at least in the case of synthetic plastics. The plastic water bottle you guzzled from this morning, the straw with which you sipped your afternoon iced-java pickup, the plastic wrapper from the microwavable frozen burrito you ate for lunch, the Tupperware you used to store last night’s dinner, the DVD you’re going to pop into that brand spanking new Blu-ray player tonight, and even, heaven forbid, the cigarette butt some of you puffed away on throughout the day—they all came from fossil fuels, either natural gas or petroleum. (Some 331 million barrels of liquid petroleum gases and natural gas liquids, or about 4.6 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption, went into U.S. plastic production in 2006. An estimated seven percent of the world’s oil went into making plastic in 2006, four percent for feedstock and another three to four during the manufacturing.)
Now, the path from fuel to plastic is a tortured one involving catalytic cracking and other forms of chemical violence at the oil refinery and then further mixing and reacting at a petrochemical plant to produce a polymer that can be extruded and melted to form what we know as plastic. Usually the petrochemical plant where the plastic is manufactured and the plant where the plastic is extruded into a mold to make a bottle or a bag are not co-located. To make the final plastic product, the plastic building blocks need to be transported to the plastic manufacturing plant from the petrochemical plant, which is typically sited near railways, trucking routes, and shipping routes for this very reason. And this is where nurdles come in.
Nurdles—tiny, pre-manufacture resin pellets about the size of a BB—are transported around the world from petrochemical plants to the thousands of facilities that transform these raw beads into the plastic products we use. (More here.)
As you might expect, given all the plastic we consume, we make lots and lots of nurdles. It’s estimated that every year about 113 million metric tons of nurdles are manufactured. And nurdles are well ensconced in the global marketplace crossing the globe from a nurdle-maker in one locale to a plastic manufacturer in another. For example, a former Ford Motor assembly plant in Norfolk, Virginia, is now a nurdle distributor for the Belgian logistics company Katoen Natie NV—reportedly the world’s largest handler of nurdles; it receives nurdles from Asia and transports them to facilities throughout the United States where they become a plastic product.
But there is a problem
As they say, stuff happens. Not all of the 5.5 quadrillion nurdles or so estimated to be manufactured annually make it to their destinations. This is a problem even the plastic industry recognizes and is trying to get a handle on. These pellets crisscrossing the globe get lost, spilled, and blown away during packing and shipment. For example in July, Typhoon Vicente caused a cargo ship to dump 150 metric tons of the nurdles into the ocean, scattering them onto Hong Kong beaches by the millions. (Just take a gander of the photos in this article to get an eye-full of the problem.) In September, closer to home, the U.S. Coast Guard was reportedly alerted to a nurdle spill in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
And once nurdles get into the environment they stay there for quite a while (they’re plastics and do not readily or quickly break down) and they get into all sorts of unlikely places—like the guts of birds and fish and, if you eat that bird or fish, guess what? In your gut too.
Should you care? Well, it’s pretty clear that nurdles are not so good for birds, sea turtles, fish and other marine life that ingest them—mistaken for the food they eat, the pellets ingested by marine animals block normal digestion, and can lead to malnutrition, starvation and death. And there’s also the tendency of nurdles—like most plastic—to absorb organic pollutants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenolys (PCBs) and DDT and even leach them out into the environment or in something’s or someone’s gut. Those pesky nurdles just might provide a handy-dandy delivery system of toxic material into you very own body. And that’s what you call food for thought.
Find out more about nurdles here.filed under: faculty, health, oceans, pollution, pre-manufacture resin pellets, wildlife
and: consumers, marine biology, marine ecosystem, marine wildlife, nurdles, Oregon, plastic, pollutants, polymers, pre-manufacture resin pellets