Tackling nurdle pollution at source

We are working to stop nurdle loss into seas for good.

Fidra’s Great Nurdle Hunt shows how widespread this plastic pollution is, and that thousands of people care about the damaging effects it has on our beaches, seas and wildlife.

Using the data gathered by our volunteers, we work with industry, companies and decision makers to find practical solutions to this pollution problem. Our work on these plastic pellets spans policy, research and the practical steps industry can take to limit loss of nurdles in Scotland, the UK and beyond.

What are nurdles?

Nurdles are the raw material for almost all of our plastic products. They are tiny disc- or lentil-shaped pellets, weighing a fraction of a gram and measuring 5mm or less.

With over 300 million tonnes of plastic being created every year globally, countless trillions of pellets are produced and transported around the world, then melted down to make anything from plastic bottles to wheelie bins.

How do they end up on our beaches?

Because they are so tiny and lightweight, nurdles are easily spilled. This can happen at any stage of handling or transport. Though some nurdles may be spilled directly into the sea (for example from container ships during storms), pellets are often lost when spills on land are not cleaned up properly. These lost nurdles ultimately find their way to the sea through storm drains and waterways.

Spills may be a fraction of a percentage of nurdles handled by a company, but given the scale of the industry and the fact that these microplastics do not break down, these losses are adding up to a to a flood of nurdles entering the marine environment. Although they’re small and easy to overlook , our volunteers have discovered nurdles in huge numbers on shorelines all around the world.

What’s the solution?

Luckily, there is a relatively straight forward solution to the problem of plastic pellet pollution, by preventing spills and cleaning them up before they enter the environment. Once at sea, pellets are almost impossible to clean up, so we must tackle the problem at source, working with industry to reduce the loss of pellets. Nurdles don’t need to become marine litter at all – careful handling by companies making, transporting and using pellets can stop pellet pollution. Simple steps such as putting filters in drains, training staff and providing effective spill kits can keep nurdles contained.

The challenge lies in the scale of the industry – the plastics industry is huge and has a complex supply chain, with companies ranging from enormous multi-national corporations, to many thousands of small businesses. Plastic is still seen in law as a harmless material and there is no legislation in place to make sure pellets are handled responsibly.

Why isn’t it already happening?

Companies handling pellets don’t want to lose their raw material, and basic good housekeeping means most pellets are cleaned up if there are spills, but right now we rely on voluntary efforts from industry to attain zero pellet loss. There is little incentive for companies to make sure ALL pellets are contained, leading to continuing losses.

Take part in a nurdle hunt

Nurdle hunt

What is Fidra doing?

Our interactive map reveals widespread nurdle pollution around the world.

The Great Nurdle Hunt was set up in 2014 to track pellet pollution around the local beaches of the Firth of Forth, but has since spread to become a global citizen science project.

We ask volunteers to head down to their local beaches and keep an eye out for pellets. Any hunts (whether or not you found a nurdle) can be reported to our online map, which helps us track where nurdles have been found.

This project not only shows that nurdles are found almost everywhere, it also helps us to show that many people care about this hidden issue. We use the evidence collected by our volunteers in our work behind the scenes with industry, other NGOs and decision makers.

We need to go beyond current voluntary efforts to stop pellet pollution into seas.

The Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) scheme was developed in 1991 by the plastics industry as a solution to the pellet loss issue. OCS is a voluntary best practice toolkit that asks companies to commit to aiming for ‘zero pellet loss’, using a set of guidelines and checklists to make improvements to their facilities.

Fidra focuses on pragmatic solutions to reduce pellet pollution and we spent several years engaging directly with the plastics industry both regionally and nationally to encourage OCS sign-up.  Positive dialogue with a number of companies with excellent pellet containment measures allowed us to create case studies of best practice to share with others. However, this period of engagement has led us to have significant reservations on the overall effectiveness of this approach:

  • Only a small fraction of the plastics industry has so far committed to the scheme. There is insufficient incentive for companies to sign up and it is hard to reach the full plastics supply chain.
  • There no external checks to make sure companies are following through with their commitment. A one-off sign-up process means there is no way to tell if companies are actually implementing effective best practice.

OCS is a comprehensive toolkit, but we need to go beyond voluntary commitments to fully stop new pellets entering the environment.

For this reason we have been calling nationally and internationally for an improved solution, asking for best practice to be standardised and certified across the full industry supply chain, with external checks in place to verify that pellets are contained. To fully tackle this pervasive pollution we need joined up action across the entire plastic supply chain.

Together with other NGOs working on this issue, we are calling for a Supply Chain Approach to tackle the issue of pellet loss.

Our vision for a plastics supply chain free of pellet loss is that:

  • All companies implement pellet management best practice as standard
  • All staff are trained to exceptionally high standards to prevent pellet loss, taking ownership of spills
  • External checks by independent auditors take place regularly, with transparent progress reports
  • Companies work together across the supply chain to ensure and demonstrate best practice
  • Industry is more transparent and accountable

We believe this vision is realistically achievable if regulators (governments and policy makers) work proactively with industry, to develop effective legislation that builds on voluntary measures.

Together with Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), we have created a briefing to describe our vision and base criteria for an effective supply chain approach.

We have been working with industry, trade associations, NGOs and decision makers at regional, national and international levels to work towards a pellet supply chain free of pellet pollution:

  • We are members of a cross-stakeholder steering group organised by The Scottish Government to develop active trials of a supply chain approach to pellet loss
  • We are participating as technical experts in international stakeholder workshops about pellet pollution, organised by the OSPAR convention, who represent countries of the North Sea area
  • We have taken part in workshops as part of European Commission investigations into the pellet pollution problem and solutions. The European Plastics Strategy, published in 2017, includes a specific commitment to ‘tackle pellet loss from industrial sources’
  • Fidra helped launch Stewart Investor’s UNPRI collaborative shareholder engagement, providing technical support and advice. 45 asset owners, running over $2 trillion assets under management are collaborating to ask leading companies handling, using and transporting pellets to introduce mandatory auditing and reporting around pellet loss.

If you’d like to find out more about our project to stop pellet pollution, please get in touch with us via info@fidra.org.uk