PORT ARANSAS, Texas — In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report about the issue of ‘nurdles’ in the environment.
What is a ‘nurdle’?
“It’s a little pellet that’s the size of a lentil, and before anything is made into a plastic product, it is first this little plastic pellet,” said Jace Tunnell, the Reserve Director at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.
Tunnell said nurdles can get released into the environment at any point in the manufacturing process, and cause problems to coastal environments.
“What happens to anything on the ground? When it rains, these things float into the nearest river, then bay, and ultimately in the ocean and back up on our beaches,” he said.
Once those plastic pellets are in the environment, they cause problems for wildlife.
“Microplastics are a super bad problem, we’ve been studying it for quite some time,” said Tracy Weatherall, a ‘Nurdle Patrol’ assistant. “The problem with nurdles is they’re so tiny the animals think they’re food when they float. So, it gets into their system, and they think they’re full, and they’re not getting any nutritional value out of it.”
In 2018, there was a nurdle spill in Corpus Christi. The issue’s effect on the Coastal Bend led to the creation of ‘Nurdle Patrol,’ a community-based project that reports on nurdle issues across the country.
In the nearly three years since the creation of ‘Nurdle Patrol,’ more than 10,000 self-reports have been made by volunteers across the country, which you can see on the ‘Nurdle Patrol’ interactive map. However, there is a lack of data south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“If you look specifically at the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll notice that the surveys basically stop when you get to the border down in Brownsville. By us not knowing what’s going on down in Mexico, there’s a data gap there. So, the more we know, the more we can make solutions on how to fix the problem,” Tunnell said.
However, that is subject to change, thanks to a recent grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The grant will allow the Marine Science Institute to expand its education efforts into Mexico, providing educational materials to neighbors south of the border.
“There is no program like this down in Mexico. They do not host plastic symposiums, so this will be a first of its kind. Curriculum about plastics reaching the ocean is not available, so we’re going to have that now available. So, it’s just a huge opportunity, not only for the Nurdle Patrol, but for organizations and schools all over the country, in the U.S. and in Mexico,” Tunnell said.
This expansion will help fills those data gaps along the Gulf of Mexico coast.
“It’s going to give us more information about where the problem is occurring, all over the Gulf of Mexico,” Weatherall said.
Additionally, Tunnell hopes this expansion can help influence legislation to get passed to hold companies accountable if there is a nurdle spill in the future. This year, the ‘Nurdle Patrol’ worked with the Surfrider Foundation and State Representative Todd Hunter to get legislation introduced to the state. While it did not pass, Tunnell said it did have an impact.
“The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is making changes to their permits, so we feel like it was a success,” he said.