The Next Great Chemophobia: Nurdles
… Yes … Nurdles
Nurdles are everywhere. In our seas, in our fish... These tiny, toxic building blocks of all plastics are the most polluting chemical we have never heard of … and our careless regulators, in the pocket of industry, aren’t doing anything about them.
The newest fear boiling the blood of anti-chemical activists is the widespread emissions of nurdles in the environment. A quick scan of recent media articles sees these insidious microplastics as:
Worse for the environment than oil spills
Nurdles are devastating the environment
Nurdles carry a toxic cocktail of hazardous waste
Nurdles are fossil fuels
They are turning our seas into plastic soups
And nurdles are also unregulated so we can assume that industry has stopped governments from protecting the public, wildlife and the environment. So in the last year, activists have been spreading their stories about these deadly nurdles.
What are Nurdles?
Most plastics are polymerized in large factories, cooled into spaghetti-like strands and cut into nibs or pellet-sized pieces to be transported to where they are processed into useful materials (bottles, film, car parts, construction materials, packaging…). The beauty of plastics is that these nibs or pellets (what activists call nurdles) can be extruded via relatively small machines on production or packaging sites.
Take a dairy facility, for example. The milk bottles or yogurt pots are made close to source with the pellets mixed in an extruder’s hopper with other additives and dyes and then blow molded into the desired shape. There can be multiple extrusion processes if, as for milk, a barrier layer is needed to protect taste.
The wonderful world of ‘nurdles’ allows food to be safely packaged, fresher and with less risk of contamination from any transportation to a packaging facility. It allows car parts to be cheaply produced near the assembly lines. In the case of certain pipe-laying operations, an extruder on wheels can be forming the pipe as it goes into the ground, avoiding the need for joints that could cause leaks or bursts.
It is true that some plastic pellets can spill from hoppers, during transportation or from holes in bags, but this accounts for a tiny amount of product loss and, with better shop floor housekeeping, can be corrected via factory or transport process controls. Industry has several product stewardship programs in place for downstream processors.
According to the IUCN, at least 99.999% of the plastic pellets produced reach their destination and intended use. According to that IUCN study, in itself highly critical of the environmental threats from other sources of microplastics, 0.001% is the most pessimistic pellet loss scenario. For this environmental group, nurdles didn’t even factor in as a microplastic threat. While industry is continuously improving their processes, we have to be mature enough to accept that a small amount might get released but that this is really at insignificant levels.
But nurdles are made of plastic, often petrochemical based, and by design, lasts for a long time. So it comes as no surprise that anti-plastic activists have been using the presence of nurdles on certain beaches as a means to renew their microplastic campaigns. And the media have been lapping it up … while they eat yogurt from plastic pots, write on plastic keyboards and charge their phones with plastic-insulated cables.
Chemophobia in Search of a Story
Curiously, the word “nurdle” is not even used by industry (they call them nibs or pellets). It is a term exploited by anti-plastic activist groups so if, someone like me (who had worked for a major plastics producer for 15 years), were to Google the word “nurdle”, well, I would only find links to activist sites or to media groups like The Guardian, Euronews or EU Observer. That’s right, news organizations who had run stories on nurdles did not once consult an expert or an industry group to discover the term “nurdle” was jumped upon by a group of activist consultants. It is almost as if these media groups were paid to run these stories.
The news groups are just parroting the activist NGO talking points, or worse, letting the anti-plastics lobby write the articles for them. For example:
Euronews.green states: “According to Plastic Soup Foundation, each year, 230,000 tonnes enter our oceans and, within the EU alone, 23 billion nurdles a day end up in the environment.” Hmm, since nurdles last hundreds of years, there should be more nurdles than grains of sand on Europe’s beaches after a few decades of such careless industry emissions. Maybe Euronews should have fact-checked those numbers instead of blindly quoting zealot nonsense. Once published, these numbers keep coming up in other articles until they are assumed to be facts.
EU Observer, in a recent two-part docudrama entitled “Europe’s worst unknown plastics crisis”, went a bit beyond excessive alarmism, depicting a nurdle Armageddon: “Making their way down storm drains, into rivers and waterways, the lightweight beads, each weighing around 20 milligrams, quickly disperse in the environment, carried by winds and ocean currents. Some drift for years; others eventually wash up on shorelines, where, undisturbed, they may remain for hundreds or even thousands of years.”
The Guardian took the case of some containers of nurdles that were on a ship that sank off the Sri Lankan coast and likened it to an environmental catastrophe worse than any oil spill. In a caption to an emotional photo of an enormous dead sea turtle (see below), they state: “The spillage is thought to have killed 470 turtles, 46 dolphins and eight whales” but buried later in the text, The Guardian admitted that only some of these animals were found to have nurdles in their bodies. Nice save since I was having a hard time grasping how some microplastics could bring down eight whales. But the editors at The Guardian know that most readers only recall the images and their captions.
It should be noted that the Guardian article was funded by the following interest groups: the “David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the McPike-Zima Foundation; and the Fund for Environmental Journalism (FEJ), a grant-making program of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which credits the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for underwriting its FEJ initiative.” These groups support ocean protection campaigns.
In seeking to replicate the success of the “straw up the tortoise’s nose” outrage, the same photo of a small fish with what appears to be a handful of bits of plastic in its mouth (not yet ingested) keeps being reprinted in different nurdle campaign-driven articles. Proving the attribution of this photo has come up empty, often claimed to be from a Sri Lankan urban issue photographer on Shutterstock (not found), or maybe the EIA (not claimed), or other sources... As the credits came up dry, we can only presume that the photo has been distributed to the media in their “pre-text” press kits with an erroneous attribution. But this is not surprising given the tactics of the anti-plastics Environmental Nurdle Complex and the lack of quality research and scrutiny in the mainstream media.
How does this Nonsense Happen?
Imagine, in cities like Washington and Brussels, a meeting room with three or four activist consultants, four heads of environmental NGOs, two funders from global foundations, an academic or two and a couple tort lawyers coming together. The topic of their meeting is to find the next big fear campaign, including:
one that could reinforce public outrage against industry, plastics, chemicals and petroleum producers;
one affecting oceans, beaches, the health of humans, fish and birds;
one that can be about toxic, persistent, unregulated substances and perceived by most to be unnecessary;
one that could keep industry knee-deep in lawsuits for the next decade.
Just before lunch arrives, someone in the room mentions the word “nurdles”, an unknown product they can shape into a frightening narrative, and people start busily taking notes. It looks like another bumper year for Big Fear!
These people have far too much money, far too much time and far too little integrity.