What are nurdles?

Have you heard the word “nurdle” in the news but don’t know what it means? Find out what nurdles are used for and how they're contributing to plastic pollution.

staff | TPIN
Nurdles collected from Raccoon Creek outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Nurdles are small plastic pellets typically less than 5 mm in size, and they’re the raw material that’s used to make familiar plastic products like water bottles, grocery bags and polystyrene foam. 

Made from fossil fuels, nurdles harm our environment from cradle to grave. But nurdles most often make the headlines when they are found in places they shouldn’t be, like rivers, streams, the ocean, and on our beaches. Sadly, nurdle pollution has become incredibly common due to frequent leaks and spills during the manufacturing process, or when they’re transported from one factory to another. A Vox investigation of nurdles found that the tiny pellets, “often escape from the plastic production process in mundane ways, slipping into drains at factories or spilling out of cargo containers while being transported by trains and ships.

As a result, Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that more than 230,000 metric tons of nurdles enter the ocean annually. 

What’s the difference between nurdles and microplastics? 

Nurdles are a type of microplastic pollution, but not all microplastics are nurdles! Broadly speaking, microplastics also include broken-down plastic litter and packaging, synthetic fibers, microbeads and more. To understand the scope of nurdle and other microplastic pollution in Pennsylvania, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center sampled rivers, streams, and lakes across the commonwealth, and we published two studies on our iconic waterways and our most pristine streams. Unfortunately, we found the presence of microplastics in 100% of the samples we collected.

Faran Savitz collecting water sample at Aquetong Creek
Faran Savitz | Used by permission
Faran Savitz collecting water sample at Aquetong Creek

How do nurdles impact the environment? 

Nurdle pollution impacts the environment in two main ways: 

  1. Nurdles can be ingested by wildlife
    Nurdles and other microplastics look like food to many aquatic animals and birds. According to Cornell University’s Wildlife Health Center, these plastic pieces remain in the stomachs of wildlife, leading to malnutrition and starvation.
  2. Nurdles accumulate other toxins and deliver them to the food chain
    Microplastics also attract pollutants that may already exist in the environment at trace levels, accumulating toxins like DDT and PCBs and delivering them to the wildlife that eat them. These types of pollutants bioaccumulate, meaning they become more concentrated and more toxic as they move up the food chain, having a devastating impacts on wildlife. DDT for example, is toxic to aquatic life, and thins the eggshells of birds of prey. Similarly, PCBs cause reproductive problems and cancer in marine mammals and birds of prey.
PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur finding plastic pellets, or "nurdles," in Raccoon Creek staff | TPIN
Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Captain Evan Clark, showing plastic nurdles found in the Ohio River and Raccoon Creek staff | TPIN

What must be done to tackle nurdle pollution? 

Given the size of nurdles, it can be difficult, if not impossible to clean them up once they’re released into the environment. They mix with sand and sediments in waterways, they’re eaten by fish and other wildlife, and they’re easily washed downstream or blown in the wind. That’s why nurdle pollution prevention is so important. PennEnvironment is actively working to prevent nurdle pollution in three key ways: 

  1. Reduce the demand for nurdles by reducing demand for single-use plastics
    Single-use plastics like grocery bags, plastic utensils, polystyrene containers and straws are used for just a few minutes and then thrown away. Except there is no “away”–these plastics end up going to incinerators or landfills where they turn into microplastics, or worse yet, they are released into our environment as plastic litter that pollutes waterways and threatens wildlife. All of these products are made from nurdles, but better alternatives exist that don’t pollute the environment. To help local concerned citizens and elected officials enact policies to reduce single-use plastics, PennEnvironment created our toolkit for reining in single-use plastics in your own community.For an even bigger impact, Congress should pass the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act which includes a strong national ban on single-use plastic bags, polystyrene and other polluting single-use plastic products.
  2. Prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets in waterways
    Congress should hold manufacturers accountable for nurdle spills and leaks by passing the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which would “prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets and other pre-production plastic into waterways from facilities and sources that make, use, package, or transport pellets.”
  3. Hold nurdle manufacturers accountable for their pollution
    Earlier this month, PennEnvironment and Three Rivers Waterkeeper announced our intent to sue BVPV Styrenics LLC and its parent company, Styropek USA, Inc., for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act at their plastic manufacturing facility outside of Pittsburgh in Monaca, Pennsylvania. Located at the confluence of Raccoon Creek and the Ohio River, approximately 20 miles downstream of Pittsburgh, the Styropek facility produces as much as 123,000 tons of expandable polystyrene (EPS) each year, in the form of styrofoam nurdles. As part of Three Rivers Waterkeeper’s efforts to curb plastic pollution in the region, the group teamed with the Mountain Watershed Association to conduct monthly “nurdle patrols” of the Ohio River. One such patrol in September 2022 collected numerous nurdles of an unusually small size that the researchers eventually traced to Raccoon Creek and then to wastewater outfalls at the Styropek facility. The monthly patrols have observed additional Styropek nurdles within their trawl since September 2022. The environmental groups’ October 3, 2023, notice letter is the first step toward ending what the groups say are longstanding, illegal discharges of plastic nurdles from the facility into Raccoon Creek.This strategy has worked well in other places. In Texas, for example, the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper sued Formosa Plastics Corporation for “illegally discharging plastic pellets” and won a $50 million settlement, ensuring that it doesn’t pay to pollute. That money will be used to restore and improve the watershed, as well as monitor for pollution and educate kids about marine environments.

If we can win on these fronts, we know we can help rein in the scourge of nurdle and plastic pollution that’s plaguing our planet. We hope you’ll support us in this effort today!


Ashleigh Deemer

Deputy Director, PennEnvironment

As the deputy director with PennEnvironment, Ashleigh oversees campaigns to protect clean air and clean water in Pennsylvania. She brings more than 15 years of experience in community organizing and government to her work to win policy change and hold decision-makers, agencies and polluters accountable. Most recently, she worked with colleagues and coalition partners to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags in Pittsburgh. Prior to joining PennEnvironment in 2018, Ashleigh served as a chief of staff in Pittsburgh City Council and organized clean air campaigns for Clean Water Action and the Clean Air Task Force. Ashleigh lives in the Pittsburgh region, where she enjoys gardening and engaging with her community.

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