The Macroproblem of Microplastics

Consumer demand for plastic goods fuels nurdle pollution in the world’s oceans.

“Creating a lot of new feedstock and products for the kind of products we’re going to need in that bright, environmentally-healthy future.” That’s how Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf described the Beaver County cracker project this July while defending his support for another (unrelated) multi-hundred million dollar tax subsidy for petrochemicals.

The governor’s boosterism deserves to be contrasted to the alarming body of scientific evidence that plastic pollution is a serious threat to environmental health. That evidence is why, right up until the coronavirus pandemic hit, a global movement against plastics was well underway. Hundreds of cities in the United States have banned various single-use products, a trend that was only accelerating. The laws are part of a wave of bans on disposable consumer plastic products—especially straws and bags—that swept across North America and Latin America. The wave even extended to China, the world’s biggest consumer of single-use plastics.

All of it was–and is–bad news for the planned petrochemical buildout along the Ohio River, which is premised on long-term projections of growing plastic use. Now many of those consumer product laws are in jeopardy or have been temporarily suspended, with grocery stores and restaurants offering takeout and eschewing reusable products in favor of single-use plastics that are believed to be more hygienic. This response may be understandable as a short-term public health measure, but it carries a serious long-term risk. With 335 million tons of plastic produced annually—and 9 million tons of it ending up in the ocean—plastic is widely recognized as a major threat to the climate, wildlife, and oceans. Scientific studies have found plastic fibers almost everywhere—in the stomachs of whales, in tap water, and even in table salt. And recent research shows that solar radiation degrades plastic, causing it to emit climate-warming methane. New research published in July indicates that annual plastic pollution in oceans could triple by 2040, and even if companies and governments met all their waste reduction targets it would only reduce the 2040 projection by a meager 7%.

Bans on plastic use are one of the few ways to reduce the manufacturing of plastic in the first place. The world’s plastic problem is not only a problem of proper waste management (a serious issue in a few countries) but also one of the very existence of plastic. Before plastics become products (lawn chairs, thin grocery sacks, or hundreds of other items), they often start as nurdles. Designed for ease of transport and versatility in manufacturing, these tiny pellets are the intermediate stage between raw petrochemicals like ethane and finished consumer goods. Roughly the size of a lentil, nurdles are considered microplastics—diminutive in stature but huge in its potential threat to the ecosystem. The Beaver County project that Governor Wolf lauds would produce 1.6 million tons of these polyethylene nurdles every year. Researchers estimate that each year approximately 230,000 tons of nurdles end up in the environment, accidentally spilled or otherwise released by the plastics industry.

Given that a single nurdle weighs only about 20 milligrams, this means that more than 10 trillion tiny plastic pellets are entering the world’s rivers and oceans every year. Birds and sea creatures often mistake nurdles for food, and their ingestion can lead to poisoning (in part because the pellets can absorb toxic chemicals like DDT) or starvation, as nurdles cannot be digested and can fill up an animal’s stomach over time.

The full effects of these harmful bits of plastic (which can break down into even smaller microplastics) are still unknown, but laboratory evidence indicates that they are toxic to phytoplankton, the foundation of the ocean’s food chain. Through photosynthesis, this microscopic marine alga absorbs nearly half of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Microplastic disrupts phytoplankton’s feeding, reproduction, and metabolism. It also disrupts the vital role of zooplankton, which feed on phytoplankton, in transporting carbon to the ocean floor in the form of fecal pellets.

Nurdles are too small to be effectively cleaned up once they escape into the environment, yet they would not exist in the vast quantity they do without the global demand for plastic products. Petrochemical companies ship billions upon billions of nurdles from production sites to factories all over the world that transform them into the finished products we use and often quickly dispose of. Because nurdles are so small and inexpensive to produce—and because their escape is so lightly regulated—the industry appears willing to accept a certain level of loss as the cost of doing business.

Some nurdle pollution results from shipping spills. In 2017 a hurricane at the Port of Durban in South Africa caused two container ships to collide, sending 49 metric tons of nurdles into the ocean. The translucent beads quickly spread along more than 1,200 miles of coastline, with some landing on the beaches and some making it as far as Western Australia over the following year. Months after the spill, South African authorities had retrieved only about 23 percent of the spilled nurdles, with the rest likely never to be recovered.

Other times, nurdle pollution results from the manufacturing process. A peer-reviewed study on the southwest coast of Sweden found that a polyethylene producer in the industrial town of Stenungsund releases millions of pellets annually. It’s the same story in Scotland, where a large petrochemical manufacturing site outside Edinburgh yields a heavy concentration of nurdle pollution in the Firth of Forth, a nearby coastal estuary. So heavy is the nurdle pollution there that during a beach cleanup, volunteers collected more than 450,000 pellets in just over two hours. There is an excellent chance that operations at the Beaver County project would result in nurdle contamination of the Ohio River.

In the most troubling cases, plastics manufacturers may dump nurdles into the environment. This is what appears to have happened on the US Gulf Coast, where the petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics was forced to pay a $50 million settlement after losing a lawsuit alleging that the company had illegally dumped nurdles and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay in Texas. The suit was bolstered by the work of citizen scientists with the Nurdle Patrol, a project of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, who carefully gathered data about the extent of the problem.

A group of citizen scientists based in Scotland started the Great Nurdle Hunt to find the minute plastic beads on 84 percent of the beaches they surveyed, including beaches in Abu Dhabi, Ecuador, and South Africa. Their research suggests that once in the marine environment, nurdles travel practically everywhere and that even the world’s most protected sanctuaries are not immune. In March 2019, for example, 11 volunteers collected more than 1,000 nurdles on the Galapagos Islands in less than two hours.

There are some industry-sponsored efforts to self-regulate nurdle pollution, but these appear to be milquetoast at best. Most notable is Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary program that provides information to participating companies on best practices for reducing nurdle spillage, but there is no government follow-up or monitoring system to measure success. And membership is no guarantee of good behavior, as Formosa Plastics’ membership has shown.

In a world demanding more and more plastic, preventing nurdle pollution is not easy. In the United States, one logical step would be to enforce laws already on the books, like the Clean Water Act, which requires companies to obtain permission from regulators before they discharge pollutants into bodies of water. By defining nurdles as a pollutant, as California did in 2008, states could regulate and, in theory, prevent nurdle pollution at manufacturing sites.

But in an interconnected world of plastics manufacturing and shipping, the most effective solutions to plastic pollution may be simple: to use less. That could mean limiting single-use plastic products as many cities, states, and countries have already done, but so far Pennsylvania leaders seem committed to making the problem worse. Governor Wolf has signed legislation to take away plastic-regulating authority from local governments and he is putting up vast sums of taxpayer money to subsidize gargantuan new factories for churning out even more plastic precursors.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article  appeared at Sightline Institute.  

Author’s update 8/27/2020: Desmog has depressing coverage of new nurdle contamination on the Mississippi River that resulted from a nurdle-fill shipping container falling off a cargo ship.