Close-up of nurdles from Sodus Beach, NY. 2016.
They are how every plastic product begins it's life. Pre-production plastic beads. Their technical name? Nurdles. They are produced in the trillions every year, and shipped all over the world in shipping containers. At all stages of the process of transport, nurdles are lost and find their way into bodies of water, where they will live for hundreds or thousand years. Not many people know it, but nurdles are a problem in the Great Lakes. The rivers that connect the lakes carry them from factories, harbors, and railroads and into the lakes.
Because they float, marine life and birds eat the pellets, which can't be digested. Because plastic absorbs chemicals so easily, hydrophobic pollutants in the water are absorbed by plastic pollution. When fish and other creatures eat the plastic, they absorb chemicals such as DDT and PCBs, Mirex and Dioxin, which means those chemicals have then entered our food chain. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation monitors contaminant levels in sportfish from specific waterbodies. The New York Department of Health publishes detailed lists of how many (if any) people can safely eat per waterbody.
There is currently no practical way to remove nurdles and microplastics from the environment. Petroleum-based plastics never actually degrade, they simply break into smaller and smaller pieces. Legislation needs to be passed to improve handling of plastics in factories.
This work is an on-going project focusing on Lake Ontario. To date, Sodus Point had the highest concentration of nurdles found in a 6 ft x 6 ft radius in one hour.