Tiny plastics pellets a big problem in coastal cleanup

September 12, 2012

On September 15, tens of thousands of volunteers will participate in California Coastal Cleanup Day, donning work gloves to gather up the tonnage of manmade debris along California’s coastal regions and inland waterways.

They’ll certainly find the usual trash along the beach: cigarette filters, beverage bottles, candy wrappers, plastic utensils.  But even the most conscientious of beachcombers are destined to fail in one regard — picking the beach clean of nurdles.

Nestled amongst the grains of sand are a seemingly infinite number of tiny plastic pellets, also known as “mermaid tears,” that are used in the manufacturing of plastic. Given their size — five millimeters wide at most — nurdles are likely to evade coastal cleanup buckets. So what do we do about it?

“That is the tricky part,” said State Water Resources Control Board environmental scientist Dylan Seidner.

The problems with plastics in the ocean are well- documented. Photos of seals and other marine life ensnared in six pack soda rings circulate widely, while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has become a cause célèbre. Nurdles are too tiny to be the subjects of heart-wrenching photography, but they are nevertheless dangerous to marine life.

Nurdles frequently spill during production and transport, and reach the San Francisco Bay via storm drains. There they can absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants such as PCB and DDT (both of which were banned decades ago but still exist in the environment), exacerbating the harm to marine animals that mistake them for food.

Nurdles also degrade into smaller particles over time, making them increasingly difficult to remove, but may never fully degrade, meaning they could be a permanent presence in marine environments.  The EPA’s aquatic debris studies report nurdles as one of the most common items found in U.S. harbors; 250,000 nurdles were found in a single sample from one of the 14 harbors they surveyed.

Preproduction plastic pellets, or nurdles, spilled during rail car loading. Photo courtesy of the California State Water Resources Control Board.

The California State Water Resources Control Board has tried to curb nurdle pollution. Last October, the agency alongside the U.S. EPA and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered four San Leandro- based plastic manufacturers to clean up nurdle spills along the Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline.  The cleanup involved the use of floating pool skimmers with fine mesh screens to harvest the minute pellets, and was carried out at the lunar high tide, when plastic debris floats to the water’s surface.

But it isn’t always possible to identify the culprit and even when it is, the cleanup task is costly and often ineffective. Seidner acknowledged that there is an element of futility to cleaning up nurdles.

“I don’t think we can know if every single last pellet was picked up,” he said. “The cleanup part is not as financially feasible as the prevention part.”

The good news is that nurdle spillages can be easily avoided if the manufacturers and transporters make basic improvements in material handling and housekeeping techniques and educate their employees. The State Water Resources Control Board and its partner agencies are issuing guidelines and carrying out inspections of California- based plastics companies.

Seidner said it is helpful for people to be aware of the unintended side effects of their plastic consumption, but there isn’t much else Coastal Cleanup volunteers, or other Bay Area residents can do to address the problem — at least for now.

“Here is the bottom line, the facilities should be taking care of this,” he said. “They should be aware that whatever plastic migrates from their manufacturing site to a waterway is affecting the environment.”

Which doesn’t mean Coastal Cleanup Day is a futile effort for volunteers. They clean up the big stuff, but the plastics industry also has an important role to play in keeping the oceans clean.


>> Get involved in the 2012 California Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday, September 15. Here is just a sample of events going on in the Bay Area:

Damon Slough, Oakland: 9am-12pm, Oakland Coliseum, 7000 Stadium Way. Bring your own bucket, gloves and whatever pick-up tools.  They’ll be handing out prizes for the most unusual item found and the best dressed bucket contest. More info.

Sonoma Valley: 9am-12pm, picnic afterwards. Various locations in Sonoma County. Join the Sonoma Ecology Center and its partners to clean up sections of Sonoma Creek and Nathanson Creek. After a morning of hard work, celebrate with fellow volunteers at a free picnic.

35+ sites in Marin: 9am-12pm. Various locations. The Bay Model is hosting cleanup at some of the most stunning beaches in the Bay Area, including a kayak/canoe cleanup in Drake’s Estero. So check out this site and follow the link to your favorite Marin beach. The Bay Model invites volunteers back to the center for a celebration from 12-3pm, 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco: 10am-12pm. Ocean Beach, Stairwell 17. join Team Ocean Beach for a morning of beachcombing. They do it once a month, so you might find yourself a regular volunteer gig. More info.



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