THE NURDLE- My Battle with a Plastic Pellet
It was raining when I met the nurdle. I was out taking a walk. Everyone else must have been inside, staying dry. The rain fell in a silent, steady drizzle, tapering off from its previous downpour. As I walked, I saw a lot of debris washing down the sides of the street. The stream of litter seemed endless. Leaves, candy wrappers, cigarette butts, pieces of dirty Styrofoam, all bobbed its way toward the storm drain. Once inside, it would be washed to a creek and then to the ocean.
It was quiet. I enjoyed the silence of the usually busy city. Then, I heard its voice, the voice that would change my life.
“Hey, you! Can you give me a hand?” I looked around to see who was talking. “Down here in the gutter.” Whoever it was had a high-pitched, whiny voice. “If you don’t help me, I’m going to wash into that huge drain over there. Come on. Hurry!”
The voice was emanating from somewhere below the curb. I crouched down to take a look. But, all I saw was a piece of a Styrofoam cup and a plastic bottle cap.
“Down HERE!” The rude and testy voice was coming out of the water below me, even though that seemed impossible.
“Is anyone there?” I asked incredulously.
“I’m going down right in front of you!” It was then I saw it, swirling in a tiny whirlpool next to the Styrofoam; a tiny white speck, smaller than a pea.
I thought out loud, “Could that little dot be talking to me?”
“I’m not a dot.” The voice said. “I’m a nurdle.”
“Are you the one asking for help?” I asked incredulously. I prodded the self-proclaimed “nurdle” with my finger.
“Yeah, yeah. I don’t know about you lady, but I don’t got all day. Get me out of this mess, would ya?” For some reason, I immediately obeyed the bossy little speck and scooped it up. “Wipe me off.” It demanded. I rummaged through my purse for a tissue and wiped what appeared to be dirt and grime off of its tiny, white body. “That’s better.” It said when I was done.
I brought it to eye level and took a good look. Could I really be having a conversation with what appeared to be a piece of plastic? I couldn’t see a face on it, let alone a mouth. “How can you talk?” I asked. “Is this some kind of joke?” I knew I’d been stressed lately. Had I finally cracked? I felt like Horton, when he heard a Who.
“Like I said before, I’m a nurdle.”
“Oh my God. You are talking.” I shook my head. “You’re awfully small to be talking. A nurdle? What’s that? I’ve never heard of one before.”
“Are you kidding me? Never heard of us? We’re all around you. In fact, we’re affecting you in ways you can’t even imagine.” The nurdle paused for a moment, then said, “I was heading toward that dirty drain, until you fished me out. In exchange for your help, I’ll tell you my story, if you want to hear it.”
I was intrigued. Either I was losing my mind, or I had discovered something really special. I carefully held the nurdle in the palm of my hand and began the short walk back to my apartment.
As we walked, the nurdle boastfully claimed that it was “small, but mighty” and that nurdles, like itself, were in the process of “taking over the world.” I had to laugh. How could something this tiny take over anything? Once inside, I put the nurdle down on my kitchen table.
“So,” I gazed at it, “you say you’re a nurdle? What’s that?”
“Nurdle schmerdle.” The nurdle said sarcastically. “Everyone thinks we’re gonna be cute and cuddly, just ‘cause some advertising executive thought of that stupid name.” The nurdle paused and then added, “Although it has worked to our advantage, I suppose. I’m sure the plastics industry wanted to make us sound sweet and harmless, instead of the dangerous threat and menace that we really are. Heh, heh, ‘nurdles’, what were they thinking?” The nurdle’s laugh sounded eerie and artificial.
“Plastics industry?” I asked. “You’re made of plastic?”
“Yup. That’s what a nurdle is. A pre-production plastic pellet. We’re the raw material used to create nearly all commercially consumed plastic products. We’re melted and molded into all sorts of things. We’re made of petroleum and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. We’re spherical, ovoid, or cylindrical and range in size from one to five millimeters in diameter.”
“So nurdles are plastic that hasn’t been made into a product yet?”
“You got it, sister. We’re made of polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene.” The nurdle stopped talking for a moment and then said in a softer voice. “I bet I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering how something this small,” it swayed from side to side, “could take over the world. But, what I said on the way over here is true. Nurdles end up all over the place and we’re affecting you in lots of ways.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll get into that later. I don’t want to alarm you…yet. Why don’t we just go over some basic nurdle facts? Like,” the nurdle paused, “how many of us there are.”
“How many of you can there be?”
“Let’s put it this way, the US alone manufactures more than sixty billion pounds of nurdles annually. That’s pounds, not individual nurdles. How many of me would make up a pound? Why, about twenty to twenty-five thousand! Each year, some five and a half quadrillion nurdles, that’s two hundred and fifty billion pounds, are produced and shipped around the world. I don’t want to alarm you, lady, but this is becoming a nurdle planet!”
“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen one of you before today.”
“That’s what you think. But, if you’ve ever bought plastic, you’ve bought something that used to nurdles. We make up all the plastic stuff in this room. This table, the chair you’re sitting on, that water bottle, even those exfoliating microspheres in your body and facial wash. In the beginning, all of it,” the nurdle boasted, “was just like me. Nurdles start out small. Then we’re sent to processing plants where we’re made into consumer goods.
If you’re a lucky nurdle, maybe you’ll end up as part of a BMW. If you’re unlucky, you could be made into a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. Now, that’s a one-way ticket to the landfill. Imagine spending hundreds of years in a trash pile. But, even worse,” the nurdle paused dramatically, “even worse, is to be made into a disposable diaper. That’s what was gonna happen to me. I had just been shipped and was on my way to a manufacturing plant. It was in the railway car, outside of Vernon, California, where I first learned my fate. I would’ve been made into a diaper. What would any self-respecting nurdle have done? I jumped. Me and about fifty thousand other nurdles leapt out of the rail car and rolled down the street. Disposable diaper? Bah! No way! That’s not the way I plan to spend eternity, sister.” The nurdle paused, then said thoughtfully, “But, wherever I end up, one thing is true, I’ll probably last forever.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll never go away. Never. Ever. Ever. I’m not like you humans with a definite lifespan. I’ll be here a lot longer than you will. A lot longer! I’ll just get smaller and smaller,” the nurdle’s voice sounded distant, “until I became plastic dust.”
“That’s right. Dust.”
“You mean there could be plastic in this dust?” I ran my finger across the table.
“Could be? Why, sure there is. It’s everywhere! Scientists have found plastic particles as small as twenty microns. That’s thinner than the diameter of a human hair.” The nurdle laughed and then said, “Eventually, I’ll degrade into single molecules of plastic. Some estimates show that it’ll take at least five hundred years for me to fully disappear. I am, as scientists refer to it, ‘environmentally persistent’ and proud of it. So, my relationship with you humans will go on a lot longer than you thought.”
“That sounds great.” I assured the nurdle, as I thought of my computer, cell phone, camera, and iPod. “Plastic’s been good to me. Almost everything I care about in my life has some sort of plastic in it. ”
“Glad to hear it.”‘ The nurdle remarked. “But, like I told you before, nurdles and plastic are affecting you in lots of ways.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Let’s see, where to begin? Umm, let’s start with the ocean.” The nurdle said brightly.
“What does plastic have to do with the ocean?”
“A lot. Plastic’s so prevalent in the ocean that in certain areas, like the North Pacific gyre, it outweighs surface zooplankton forty-six to one. There are four other gyres or high-pressure zones like that around the world, where the situation could be the same. In fact, these high-pressure areas make up 40% of the oceans. Off the Southern California coast, plastic marine debris outweighs zooplankton about 2.5 to 1.”
“How did all of that plastic get into the ocean?”
“Nearly 80% of marine debris comes from the land. Most of it’s litter, but some of it, about 10%, is nurdles or microplastics, just like me! Rain washes plastic down creeks, streams, rivers, or storm drains into the ocean. A June 2006 United Nation’s report shows that there are about forty-six-thousand pieces of plastic marine debris floating near or on the surface of every square mile of ocean.”
“If I hadn’t picked you up out of the gutter, would you have ended up as marine debris?”
“Probably. Almost ninety percent of floating marine debris is plastic: Styrofoam, pieces of bottles, bags, monofilament fishing line, cigarette butts… ”
“Cigarette butts aren’t plastic.”
“Oh yes, they are. When you’re puffing away on those filters, you’re puffing on plastic; cellulose acetate, to be precise.”
“Yuk. So, I guess stepping on cigarette butts doesn’t make them go away.”
“There is no ‘away’ for plastic. The same qualities that make plastic desirable as a product make it dangerous as a pollutant. Its resiliency and longevity can wreak havoc in the environment for hundreds of years to come. We, nurdles, call plastic’s impact on the ocean, the ‘One, Two, Three, Plastic Punch’!”
“Plastic Punch?” I asked.
“That’s right. Plastic Punch Number One is ‘Toxic Migration’. That’s when poisonous chemicals migrate or leach out of plastic marine debris and go straight into the ocean.”
“Are there poisonous chemicals in plastic?”
“Of course, there are toxic chemicals in plastic! You’re so innocent. When plastic’s being manufactured, chemicals are added to make it pliable, durable, colorful, and inflammable. The catch is these toxic chemicals don’t necessarily stay in the plastic. They can migrate out, right into the surrounding ocean water. This migration can turn the oceans into a kind of toxic soup.
Plastic Punch Number Two is what I like to call ‘Toxic Attraction’. In the ocean, plastic acts like a magnet or sponge for hydrophobic chemicals; those that don’t easily dissolve in seawater. These chemicals include POPs, persistent organic pollutants. PCBs, DDT, dioxins, and furans are all POPs. They, and other chemicals, accumulate on the surface of the water, where they can collect on floating plastic debris.”
“So, plastic not only has toxins in it, it also attracts poisons that are floating in the ocean?
“Yup, you got it, sister. The plastic debris turns into a transporter for pollutants. It’s almost like plastic says ‘All aboard!’ and toxic POPs floating around in the water hop right onto the plastic and stick to it like a magnet. This turns the plastic debris into a noxious, poison pill, which can be swallowed by all kinds of sea creatures.”
“Why would animals eat plastic?”
“Well, that’s the third and final Plastic Punch. Plastic marine debris looks just like plankton and other food sources. Birds, turtles, jellyfish, and other foraging animals are completely fooled! They gulp it down in a case of mistaken identity and ingest not only the plastic itself, but also any pollutants that have adhered to it. It’s a double toxic whammy!”
“Wait a minute, so the animals that usually eat plankton, are not only eating the plastic, but also the poisons that stick to it?”
“That’s right, smarty pants. Studies have shown that the concentrations of these chemicals can be up to a million times higher on the plastic debris than in the surrounding seawater.” The nurdle snickered. “Sort of the opposite of a vitamin pill.”
“What does it do to the animals?”
“It poisons them, lady, what do you think!?” The nurdle giggled. “I call this part of the Plastic Punch ‘The Last Supper.’”
“How can you laugh? It’s not funny.”
“My heart’s made of plastic. What can I say? Anyhoo, more than one million birds, one hundred thousand whales, and countless numbers of dolphins, seals, turtles, and fish are killed by either ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic every year.”
“That’s so sad.”
“Is it? Wait till you hear this! A bird dissected by Dutch researchers had 1,603 pieces of plastic in its stomach. A sea turtle found in Hawaii was filled with more than a thousand pieces of plastic, including a toy truck wheel, a nylon rope, and pieces of a comb. On Midway Atoll in the North Pacific, it’s been estimated that albatross chicks are fed five tons of plastic a year. Their parents mistakenly eat plastic and then regurgitate it to their young. In fact, 90% of Laysan albatross chick’s carcasses contain plastics. Eating plastic gives these animals a false sense of fullness. They feel full because they are full, not with real food, but with plastic. This can cause dehydration, weight loss, blockages in the digestive tract, and ‘food’ poisoning from the toxins in or on the plastic.”
“Those poor birds. I feel sick.”
“You should actually feel sorry for me.” The nurdle squeaked.
“For me.” The nurdle sighed. “Imagine how bad it is for us little nurdles. How would you like to be gulped down by an albatross and then regurgitated into its chick’s gaping mouth? That’s no picnic. The regurgitation part is really gross. It’s almost as bad as being a diaper. ”
“They both sound terrible.”
“I hate to break it to you, but sea creatures aren’t the only things ingesting plastic. Do you ever eat cheese wrapped in plastic? Drink bottled water? Squeeze yogurt into your mouth from a plastic tube? Don’t you know that anything packaged or stored in plastic absorbs some of the chemicals used to make the plastic?”
“I heard something about that, but most of the food I eat is packaged in plastic. Plus, I like buying bottled water. I trust it more than tap water.”
“Well, there’s some extra additives lurking in that water. Remember we talked about how additives and plasticizers migrate out of plastic marine debris right into the ocean? Well, the same thing happens in your bottled water. When you’re sipping it, guess what else is floating around in there? Those same old chemicals! It’s even worse if the plastic is heated up, sucked or chewed on.”
“Who sucks or chews on plastic?”
“Obviously, you don’t have kids. Think about baby bottles, pacifiers, and children’s toys. When kids put plastic in their mouth, they’re dosing themselves with chemicals.”
“They wouldn’t put harmful chemicals in baby toys.”
“Oh really? Sure, they do. Let me tell you about a few. Umm…so many chemicals, so little time. Let’s start with some of the biggies. Have you heard of phthalates?”
“Thal-eights?” I shook my head, “I don’t think so.”
“Well, you may not have heard of them, but they’ve heard of you. Phthalates are universal plasticizers and about a billion pounds are used per year, worldwide. They’re the most abundant human-made pollutants in the world. Phthalates are found in products that you use everyday, things like plastic wrap, the coatings of time-release pharmaceutical pills, pesticides, and paint. They’re used in the cosmetics industry in nail polishes, colognes and perfumes. You receive exposure to phthalates from bottled water and sodas, TV dinners in plastic trays, Teflon cookware, and boil in bag and canned foods.”
I glanced at my polished nails, and asked, “Aren’t cans made out of metal?”
“Yes, but most are lined with plastic lacquer.”
“Well, what’s so bad about phthalates?”
“Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and exposure has been linked to reproductive problems like premature breast development, decreased sperm count, infertility, cancer and asthma.”
“You’re saying that if I drink water in plastic bottles, or eat food stored in plastic containers, I could be eating phthalates?”
“Fraid so. You’re probably eating them if you microwave your food, especially acidic or fatty foods, in plastic containers.”
I thought of all of the instant fat-laden foods that I loved; frozen lasagna, burritos, and cheese enchiladas, all innocently packaged in plastic, and conveniently stored in my freezer. All they needed was a little ‘zap!’ in the microwave and voila! I had a nutritious meal full of – phthalates?”
“Have you heard of PFOA?”
I felt a sense of impending doom. “No, I’m not sure if I want to.”
“Well, it’s heard of you. Perfluorooctanoic acid is a chemical that’s in microwave popcorn bags; take out containers with waxy linings, and non-stick pots and pans. PFOA is used to repel grease and has been linked to cancer, kidney and lung damage.
Oh, I love Bisphenol A, aka BPA!” The nurdle sounded joyful. “The US produces about six billion pounds of BPA a year. It’s used in polycarbonate #7 containers, such as baby bottles and water bottles. It migrates out of infant formula and other canned foods that are lined with plastic lacquer. It’s also used in microwave cookware and in some dental fillings. BPA acts like a synthetic estrogen and is thought to have negative effects on sperm count and sexual development. It’s also been linked to prostate and breast cancers.
Then there’s PVC. Polyvinylchloride. That one off-gasses into the air and is inhaled by people like you. It’s found in vinyl siding and flooring, automobile interiors, shower curtains, and kid’s toys. Some plastic wraps are made of PVC and can leach into meats and cheeses within hours. Exposure has been linked to liver damage.
PFOA, BPA, PVC, the list could go on and on.” The nurdle giggled. “You sure seem like you want to destroy yourselves. I have a question for you. Has it been worth it?” the nurdle asked gleefully, “to trade your prostate health for the convenience of microwave cookware?”
“I don’t have a prostate.” I snapped.
“You’ve got a liver.”
“You don’t sound very upset over this.” I accused the nurdle.
“Upset?” the nurdle laughed. “I feel jubilant. Me and my kind are taking over the entire ocean and the land is next.”
“How can you say that? You seem to have no remorse for what you do. Plastic is causing so much damage.” I shook my head in dismay at the nurdle. “I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t saved you. I don’t like you.”
“Like? Ha! You love me. Plastic is the most widely used material on Earth. Worldwide, shoppers use 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags a year. In 2001, the average American used 223 pounds of plastic. Families in the US use about 700-900 plastic bags every year. An estimated three million barrels of oil is required to manufacture the nineteen billion plastic bags used annually in California alone. To top it off, each American puts about sixty-five pounds of plastic into landfills every year. What a good use for depleting oil reserves, don’t ya think?”
“I recycle all of the plastic that I use.”
“That’s what you think, naive human. In reality, less than 5% of plastic worldwide ever gets recycled. Every day in the US, over 2,500 tons of non-biodegradable plastic packaging is thrown away. It ends up in landfills, or, as you’ve learned today, heads right into the ocean.”
“That depends on your point of view. It’s not depressing if you’re a plastics manufacturer who rakes in big bucks for all of the products they sell to willing consumers. But, since you’re not, you should be depressed. Go have a chat with the American Chemistry Council. They seem to think that ‘Plastics Make It Possible.’ The nurdle paused. “Like I said before, this is becoming a Nurdle Planet. Evolution happens. Humans are being replaced by plastic.”
“You’re wrong. Nurdles and plastic wouldn’t exist without people. Weren’t we smart enough to create you in the first place?” I snapped.
“Smart?! I’m not sure if that’s the right word.” The nurdle countered. “Nurdles often wonder, as we’re being spilled during transport, or escaping out of factories by clinging onto worker’s shoes and clothes, how could you be so oblivious to such a big threat as nurdles?”
The needless heckling of the obnoxious nurdle was beginning to infuriate me. “Big threat?” I asked. “Look at you.” I pointed at the nurdle. “You can’t even get up on the table without me.”
“Get up on the table?” the nurdle shouted. “I am the table!”
“That’s it!” I yelled. “Get out of my house. I never want to see another piece of plastic again!”
“Oh, give me a break. You humans will continue to buy, buy, buy, consume, consume, consume. You manufacture products that make you sick. You’ve traded health for ease.” The nurdle laughed. “What me to spell it out? Take a look at little, old, plastic me. I could be the end for you and billions of other animals.”
“I wish I hadn’t fished you out of the storm drain. You little menace.” I muttered. “There’s got to be some way to get rid of you.”
The nurdle ignored me. “Everything comes with a price. But, none of you thought the price would be so high. Oh well, too bad for you humans. We, nurdles are having a blast. Floating around, blowing here and there, maybe bobbing in a gyre for a few decades. Taking rides inside whales, flying around in birds. Plastic has permeated your lives so much that our plasticizers are inside your bodies.” The nurdle rolled around the table, then came to a stop and said, “Honey, take a long look at me. I’m the dark side of convenience.”
“You evil little twerp, I refuse to let you continue on your rampage of destruction. You’re not only dangerous; you’ve got a bad attitude.” The nurdle snickered. “You’re a nasty little creature! Spending your time killing animals in the ocean, and making people sick, but, the worst, the worst!” I yelled, “is being in babies’ chew toys!”
“What’re gonna do about it? Kill me? Remember, I’m indestructible. Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you made so many of us. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” The nurdle cackled.
“You little piece of plastic crap! I’ve had it. I don’t need to be chastised by you!” I lunged at the nurdle. It quickly threw itself off the table, and boasted, “You do have a problem right now because you can’t get rid of me.”
“Oh, yes I can.” I threatened, as I began to chase after the rolling pellet. I finally cornered it, looked down at the nurdle, and said, “I’m sorry. I’m usually a pacifist, but you’re so destructive, you deserve to die.” My foot was raised over the little nurdle.
“Go ahead. I’d love to see you try.” It challenged.
I thought of the poor albatross chicks being fed plastic by their parents and ground my heel into the nurdle. I raised my foot and gingerly took a peek. The shoe hadn’t left a mark. “Damn pleather!” I cried.
“There’s no use trying. I’m here to stay. You’re wasting energy.” the nurdle taunted me as I ran into the kitchen, grabbed my heaviest cast iron pan and waved it menacingly over the obnoxious piece of plastic.
“I dare ya. “
I smashed the pan down on it as hard as I could, but the nurdle remained untouched. Then it began to laugh. “Your feeble efforts amuse me.” It darted across the kitchen floor and headed into the hallway where it began to sing a song.
“Nurdles floating in the deep, blue, sea. Small and cute, I’m marine debris. I’ll float forever, proud and free. Poor dead marine creatures swallow me. For I ain’t plankton, fish eggs, and such. Too bad for them, they eat so much. Nurdles and plastic live on and on. We’ll continue our endless song. Too bad you humans don’t live as long. From plastic products to plastic dust. Nurdle power never rusts. Thank you humans, for making us!” It was a catchy little tune, the kind that gets stuck in your head for days. I knew I had to put a stop to it fast.
I chased the nurdle down the hallway and almost lost track of it as it traversed through my Olefin carpet. I was sweaty, hot, and filled with a murderous rage. I was losing a battle with a tiny plastic pellet and I didn’t feel proud. Just then, I thought of my lighter. “I’m going to melt you!”
“And cause toxic emissions?”
Suddenly, I felt defeated. Was there any way to get rid of this pernicious plastic pellet? I thought of the quadrillions of nurdles produced every year. The billions masquerading as plastic plankton in the plastic seas, the toxic chemicals migrating out of the plastic into our food and water, and of all the babies around the world who could be, at that very moment, chewing on PVC plasticizers with their new teeth. “Why did you tell me all this?” I lamented. “I was happier before I knew.”
“You needed to know because we will win.” The nurdle firmly stated as it nestled into the polypropylene carpet fibers that covered my apartment floor.
I gazed at the nurdle. Then I took a long look at myself and at all of the plastic in my apartment. I thought about my complete and utter dependence on it. How could things ever change?
Suddenly, I realized what I had to do. I couldn’t get rid of all of the other nurdles, not yet. But, I could do something about this one. I quickly plucked the nurdle up out of the carpet, ran to my desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a legal sized envelope. I opened the envelope and popped the nurdle inside. Then I ran to my computer and did a quick search on Google, using my plastic keyboard and mouse.
“I may not be able to destroy you now.” I calmly informed the nurdle. “But, I can make you suffer.” I sealed the envelope and wrote on the front,