Nurdle Hunting

Yesterday I walked the Long Beach shore in the late afternoon sun. As usual, I was on the lookout for plastic, but I also had a more specific mission: I was hunting for nurdles. But what, you ask, is a nurdle? Nurdle is the nickname given to pre-production plastic pellets. Not to be confused with crumbled bits of Styrofoam, these little beads-without-holes are what plastic looks like before it’s molded into more familiar objects. They are far more difficult to pick up than to find, once you know what they are and where to look in the sand (you can see at least eight in the blog banner image too). Freshly produced nurdles are smooth and bright, but over time the pellets get worn by sun and waves, and tinted by the synthetic toxins that stick to their oily surface (think all those nice things like BPA, PCBs and DDT that we’ve been flushing out to sea for decades). The more yellowed or browned, the longer they’ve been at sea and the more chemicals they’ve amassed.

As I walk the beach, I fill a grocery bag with more visible trash, collecting the expected remains of styrofoam cups, bottle caps, and straws. But the handful of nurdles I patiently picked from the tide line are especially important because they represent a whole class of plastic that slips right past solutions grounded in consumer recycling: nurdles are waste before they are consumer goods. Shipped by giant container loads from refineries that ‘crack’ them from gas or oil at high temperatures, to factories that melt and shape them into more recognizable objects, round pellets slip through cracks and roll right into storm drains and waterways. Despite some local improvements, nurdles continue to flow down LA’s rivers and out to sea.

Long Beach is a particularly good place to think about plastic’s industrial ties. The small islands just offshore are oil-drilling platforms in disguise. Designed in the 1960s by the theme park architects responsible for Disney’s Tomorrowland, they are decorated with palm tress and artificial waterfalls, drills hidden in condo-like structures with blue ‘balconies’ (hint: the towers move!). I am still convinced that they are mad-scientist laboratories. The port is just beyond the islands, massive container ships on the horizon shuttling consumer goods and plastic waste back and forth between North America and Asia.

As the sun begins to set over the oil rigs and port cranes, I pluck a green plastic army man from the sand, adding the military to the web of primary resource extraction, shipping and consumption on display in front of me. With synthetic materials heavily developed during WWII, chemical companies looking for postwar markets helped establish plastic’s current ubiquity (not to mention the place of oil in ongoing conflicts). While he takes aim at the sea, the tiny figure gives no clue as to where he was molded, and I wonder how many times the plastic materials have crossed the Pacific.

Beached nurdles are by no means unique to Southern California. My well-traveled friends over at 5 Gyres report that they have yet to find a beach anywhere in the world without at least a few nurdles to be found. Most recently a huge container spill near Hong Kong left shores buried in plastic. As volunteers scrambled, to pick, shovel and even vacuum tons of nurdles from the shore, whole farms of fish unable to distinguish the beads from their usual feed pellets perished, floating belly up with stomachs full of plastic.

Next time you are at the beach, any beach, take a look along the tide line where bits of wood and seaweed and other debris congregate. Look for the pieces that are a little too round, a little too buoyant. You will see them. The nurdles are there.

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Fake Grass on a Plastic Beach

My recent research trip to the Big Island, Hawaii included a pilgrimage to Kamilo beach, near South Point. Kamilo is not a tourist beach; it is far from towns and houses, five miles down a very rough 4-wheel drive road. And it is covered in plastic waste. Like many people involved with plastic pollution, I have wanted to visit this beach for a very long time. I finally got the chance thanks to the incredible generosity of Noni and Ron Sanford, a local couple that have been beachcombing and cleaning up debris here for years.

Given the difficult trek, we left well before dawn, making our way through tall grass and groves of trees on increasingly rough roads. As the sky lightened the dirt track gave way to an otherworldly crossing of jagged black lava. Finally arriving at the beach with the dawn, this is what we saw:

This is not a local littler problem. A few containers read “Hawaii dairy,” but the vast majority of writing is Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and occasionally Russian. But don’t exonerate yourselves too quickly my North American friends – currents speed waste from the west coast of North America right past these islands to wash up on shores in Asia, or to circulate back around years later, likely as the tiny pieces scattered everywhere on the beach, recognizable only as plastic:

I’ve held large bags of Kamilo ‘sand’ before, but nothing compared to digging for hours through piles of plastic, synthetic confetti over a foot deep where it gets caught in the rocks. Among these motley fragments are pre-production plastic pellets called nurdles (the super round white balls), which are industrial rather than consumer waste.

The beach is an unforgettable lesson in what things are made of plastic, and what kinds of plastics float. I learn by looking  that rolls of tape, bicycle pedals and umbrella handles qualify in both categories. And so too, I learn, does Astroturf. With disturbingly poetic irony, I pick fake grass off a plastic beach. We also saw lots of bottle caps, bottles with caps  (the most common kinds of plastic bottles sink when not full of air), and a surprising number of toothbrushes, most extremely weathered, bristles worn down to almost nothing. From amongst these broken pieces, Noni and I pulled a collection of strange treasures, including wheels and lighters Noni is collecting for art projects. I am particularly intrigued by seemingly less-interesting knotted pieces of plastic bag. I learned a few months back that Hawaii promoted a ‘knot your bag’ campaign in an effort to ground flighty plastic film, and wonder whether it did more than make people feel better about using disposable plastic.

Further down the beach, turtles swim in surge channels garnished with waste, bright plastic pieces floating visible in the frothy waters, a reminder of the animal lives at stake. Even more sobering, is a wood pallet that Noni suggests might be Japanese tsunami debris, but we have no way to confirm. Like much of the waste here, it too ultimately remains anonymous. It is especially worth noting, though, that this is the best the beach has looked in years. Fishing nets, ropes, floats and bottles are no longer piled waist high, thanks to the diligent clean-up efforts of Ron and Noni, and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. But cleanups at collector beaches do not stop flows of plastic into the ocean, they do not remove pieces already inside fish and birds, and they do not end the need for more cleanups.

Beachcombing, with plastic

Searching beaches for polished glass and pretty rocks is a common activity for my family, but my recent work has put plastic on our collective radar. Today my mom and I decided to go down to our local beach, Sargeant Bay in BC, to pick up plastic waste. We were both under the impression that the beach was fairly clean, but I had noticed some bottle caps, styrofoam chunks and floating bags on a recent walk thanks to the plastic-spotting vision acquired on the expedition.

On my last visit, there was a big piece of Styrofoam floating right at the shoreline. But it had been made into a boat with little stick masts, decorated with feathers and tethered to the shore with rope. I used its ambiguous status, floating somewhere between toy and garbage and art, as an excuse for not carrying it to the trash. Two weeks later there’s no sign of the ‘boat,’ and I feel slightly guilty for leaving it as I pull piles of crumbling Styrofoam from the high tide line. But my regrets are soon interrupted by a little crab and bottle cap, left side by side on a log – someone’s beachcombing treasures. I began to wonder if finding and playing with plastic waste has become as normal a part of going to the beach as looking for baby crabs under rocks, not even registering as unsightly litter (never mind potentially toxic or harmful to marine life).

Scouring only half the beach, and leaving the higher areas and driftwood piles unexplored, my mom and I managed to fill a large garbage bag with all kinds of plastic. While the ropes and floats associated with the fishing industry (and so common in the North Pacific Gyre) were definitely present, much of what we gathered seemed to have more familiar origins. Some items were likely from beachgoers, wrappers and baggies and other items escaped from picnics or accidentally left behind. But the same currents that wash all the logs and bark and seaweed into the bay are likely also delivering plastic waste to the shore. Look closely and amongst the bottle caps, straws and foam you’ll find: milk-jug rings, caution tape, hairbrush handle, balloon ends, tampon applicators, earplug, rubber glove, BB-gun pellets and a lighter.

As we sorted through the waste at home, my mom asked why it was better off in the landfill than left on the beach. The short answer is that it keeps the pieces from breaking down into smaller pieces and floating back out to sea where they can be eaten by fish and other marine life. But her question also brings up the bigger issue – that clean-ups really need to be seen as last resorts, not solutions.

Special thanks to my mom for helping to pick up plastic waste not only once, untangling it from driftwood and seaweed at the beach, but twice – sweeping it up after the patio photo shoot. ‘Boat’ photo courtesy of Ming.

How to clean a beach

Yesterday sister and I bused up to Waimanlo beach for a day of cleanup and a change of pace from buzzing Waikiki. Like most places on Oahu’s windward side, Waimanalo boasts both rugged beauty and a steady accumulation of marine debris, especially plastic from around the pacific rim.

While not covered in piles of waste, the beach was littered with poker-chip sized pieces every few steps, often the blues and greens and oranges of detergent bottles. We found some identifiable chunks – bottle caps, a shoe, plastic bucket handles, and three weathered half toothbrushes that seem proof of distant origin. Unlike cigarette butts (made of millions of plastic fibers, not paper and harbouring toxins that release into water after only an hour), and new-looking food wrappers, these were not items carelessly discarded by beachgoers. The strange blue-grey tubes, on the middle-left, are ‘oyster spacers,’ from farming operations in Asia.

As my sister pointed out, you don’t even see most of the plastic unless you are looking for it. Like the garbage patch, most detritus is broken into pieces, colorful sprinkles of festive, but toxic synthetic sand.  Dragging an increasingly weighty garbage bag on a hot morning across only a tiny fragment of one beach, unable to collect all the little pieces, we began to get a very practical sense the impossibility of clean-up.

As the bus driver joked when asked about the length 0f the beach – “it goes all the way around.” Multiplying plastic bits  by 112 miles (180km) of coastline on Oahu alone, I can barely begin to imagine the immensity of the problem at sea. I am also struggling to reconcile the treasure-hunt satisfaction of finding large, colourful, or identifiable pieces, with the gravity of plastic waste, a contradiction I can only imagined will be greatly multiplied on the expedition as we hope as ‘explorers’ to find waste, while, whole-heartedly wishing it was not there to be found.

A few days ago, I had a long phone conversation with a founding member of B.E.A.C.H. who pointed me in the right direction for beach clean-up, strongly recommending gloves as protection against the dangerous synthetic chemicals like DDT that adhere to the surface of ocean plastics at many, many times the concentration of surrounding water. She was also adamant that BEACH was not simply a beach cleanup organization. In fact, she had refused to participate in a cleanup of Waikiki beach on grounds of lacking litter prevention measures. In response to my commenting that tourists act as if maid service extends to the beach, she replied with a story of a man finishing a cigarette and dropping it deliberately on the ground in the path of a girl scout collecting litter.

Collecting plastic on the beach does helps ensure it does not break into smaller pieces, wash out to take another 6 year turn around the gyre, or be eaten by marine life. As many have pointed out before me, however, truly cleaning a beach requires stopping the flow of plastics. Yet, despite BEACH’s efforts targeting in sequence, cigarette butts, bags, bottle caps and cutlery, ever more plastic disposables seem to be appearing. Cheap inflatable beach toys, in bright blue, pink and green, are almost as prevalent as tourists in Waikiki. Sold on almost every corner for less than 5 dollars (“air mattress $2.99; $3.59 inflated”), they are designed to last a single, short vacation at most and it is unlikely that even resolute survivors would be packed back home to be used again.