At Grand Isle State Park, on a sandy beach popular with sunbathers and anglers, Jace Tunnell pointed to the tide line and its usual scattering of litter: milk jugs, water bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags.

But there’s a lot more trash not easily seen, said Tunnell, a marine biologist with the University of Texas. He crouched and, just as he predicted, began finding tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles. Within a few minutes, he had a handful of the tapioca-sized bits, the raw material used to manufacture a host of plastic products but increasingly ending up in rivers and oceans.

“A lot of these ones look fresh,” Tunnell said as he dropped the nurdles into a plastic bag. “As they age, UV light turns them amber. So these ones are probably brand new.”

This particular crop of nurdles wasn’t the downriver result of last month’s massive Mississippi River nurdle spill in New Orleans. Tunnell’s nurdle hunt on Grand Isle was in May 2019, during a very busy spring, when he and hundreds of volunteers with the “Nurdle Patrol” fanned out across the Gulf Coast to document the presence of nurdles at thousands of survey sites.

The resulting study, recently published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, shows that almost every beach surveyed last year in Texas and Louisiana had nurdles. Concentrations were highest in Texas, a major nurdle producer and the end of the line for the Gulf Stream current, which has long pushed a large share of the Atlantic Ocean’s floating trash to Texas. Most survey areas in Texas had about 150 nurdles, but more than 30,800 nurdles were collected in 10 minutes at one spot near Galveston.

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Louisiana’s concentrations were much lower, with a median of 36 nurdles per survey, but higher than Mississippi and Alabama. Most survey sites in Florida had no nurdles.

The estimated 743 million nurdles that poured out of a cargo ship container in August, and continue to wash up on New Orleans area riverbanks, introduced the nurdle problem to a lot of people in Louisiana. But Tunnell stresses that the little pellets have been fouling the state’s coastal and inland waterways for decades.

“If you look at 40 nurdles we collected out on Grand Isle last year, you’ll see they’re 40 different nurdle types probably from 40 spills,” he said this week. “That should be concerning, because it shows the issue is chronic. It’s happening daily.”

Nurdle Patrol on Grand Isle

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Members of the Nurdle Patrol survey Grand Isle State Park for tiny plastic pellets on May 20, 2019.
Tristan Baurick, Times-Picayune
Globally, more than 230,000 tons of nurdles are likely entering the environment every year, according to a 2016 study for the European Commission. They get there via spills and other accidents at every stage of the plastics supply chain: at the manufacturing site, during transportation, loading and storage and at the factories where nurdles are melted to make everything from yogurt tubs to vinyl siding.

Birds, fish and turtles readily gobble up nurdles, mistaking them for fish eggs and other food.

“The chemicals that attach to nurdles can cause all kinds or problems. Behavioral changes and sexual reproduction can be altered,” Tunnell said. “And if animals eat enough of them, they can clog the intestinal tract and [animals] can starve to death.”

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