NERRds + Volunteer Power = Global Action
Stennie Meadours, a founding member of the Nurdle Patrol, holds a bag of thousands of plastic pellets she found on a local beach.
“The first place I looked, I collected 30,000. I was horrified, and the more I looked, the more I found.”
Stennie Meadours is remembering the first time she combed the Texas City Dike Shoreline for nurdles, the lentil-sized pellets used in plastics manufacturing. She went looking after she saw the Mission-Aransas Reserve’s call for volunteer nurdle monitors on Facebook.
“Before I retired, my job was to investigate spills and hazardous waste that was disposed of illegally,” she says. “I had never heard of nurdles, so I thought this was some type of odd occurrence.”
What she found, however, was a “big problem that was not really on anyone’s radar.” Stennie, an avid birdwatcher and master naturalist, promptly set up a training with her naturalist’s group so they could help with monitoring. She also became committed to building awareness of nurdles and the threat they pose to marine life and our seafood supply.
Tiny plastic nurdles are literally a poison pill for marine life—they absorb harmful chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs and are commonly mistaken for food by fish, trutles, birds, and other animals.
Stennie’s reaction was not unique. What began as a call for a few volunteers to monitor one Texas beach has grown into Nurdle Patrol—a multinational movement engaging nearly 2,000 volunteers who have collected nurdles at more than 1,200 sites.
Their data not only shows high concentrations of nurdles near plastic manufacturing sites around the country, it also informed a $50 million legal settlement. The Mission-Aransas Reserve is charged with using $1 million of this to build the Nurdle Patrol in other regions and enhance public understanding of the issue through efforts like the Texas Plastics Pollution Symposium.
“That’s the power of volunteers—they amplify everything” says Jace Tunnell, director of the Mission-Aransas Reserve at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. “We knew there’d been a spill, but the state didn’t—Stennie encouraged us to report it to the Coast Guard. We figured we’d need four volunteers to track the spill, and that first week we got 300 responses from around the Gulf of Mexico!”
“Kids shouldn’t have to deal with this,” says Jace Tunnell, whose children help with the volunteer Nurdle Patrol. “They should be picking up seashells, not plastic pellets off the beach.”
Tunnell and his team saw Nurdle Patrol as a way to harness that enthusiasm in 2018. Their goal was to create a simple monitoring protocol that would be rigorous enough to support research and legal action, but easy enough for anyone to run with. Today, Nurdle Patrol is supported by 27 partner organizations, including interest by Europe’s Great Nurdle Hunt.
“More volunteers means more data, and that means a bigger and better picture of what the problem really is,” he says. Nurdle spills, particularly during transport, are an industry wide problem that began with the mass production of plastics in the 1940s. Estimates for the number of nurdles that have accumulated in watersheds and oceans are in the billions. Cleaning up the past may be impossible, but according to Jace, there is a path to changing the future.
“Because of the data collected through Nurdle Patrol we can see that spills are not just a legacy problem. Volunteers are routinely finding nurdles in rivers and streams, which means the spills are happening up watershed.”
He says that plastics manufacturers have the technology to reduce or eliminate nurdle spills, but that the key to ensuring this happens means stronger federal regulations and state stormwater permits—and that can only happen when everyone gets involved.
“When volunteers show up to take samples, then we have something to work with, to bring to a state agency,” says Jace, who is working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to encourage stricter state regulations. “It’s a great opportunity for anyone who is concerned about this to get involved and make a difference.”
Stennie, who is still on Nurdle Patrol, could not agree more. “Wherever you are, join the Nurdle Patrol, document the problem near you to make others aware of it. Never think there is nothing you can do— everyone can do something to get involved in protecting the life and beauty our earth provides.”
A big shoutout to Mission-Aransas Reserve staff, friends, and volunteers—you make us proud!