Charleston is no stranger to tiny plastic pellets. The pellets, also known as nurdles, are the building blocks of plastic manufacturing; they are the intermediary between a raw material and a completed product. These lentil-sized plastics pose a huge threat to our waters and wildlife, and have plagued beaches in and around Charleston for several years. In fact, Charleston has the highest concentration of nurdle pollution outside the Gulf of Mexico.

As a port city, Charleston faces nurdle pollution from the global plastic supply chain, but it is not alone in its experience. A recent report, co-authored by Oracle Environmental Experts and Fidra, found nurdle pollution is ‘ubiquitous’ across the globe. Plastic pellets are estimated to be the second-most common type of primary microplastic — plastics intentionally manufactured to be tiny, not broken-down pieces of larger plastic —  in the ocean by weight.

Nurdles are causing big problems for our environment. It’s far too easy for a bird, fish or turtle to mistake the pellets for food, since they look like tadpoles or fish eggs. Wildlife can starve to death if they eat enough plastic. Plastic pellets can also absorb toxic chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, and mercury. These types of pollutants bioaccumulate, meaning they become more concentrated and more toxic as they move up the food chain. When humans eat an animal or fish that has ingested nurdles, the plastic and toxic chemicals from that animal will end up in our system, too.

The Clean Water Act is supposed to stop companies from dumping pollution into our rivers, but rules regarding plastic pellets are outdated and often not enforced. However, several lawsuits have used the Clean Water Act to hold plastic manufacturers and handlers accountable for nurdle pollution after the fact. Charleston Waterkeeper and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League sued Frontier Logistics in 2020 and won. Formosa Plastics in Texas released millions of nurdles from their factory near Lavaca Bay for years despite having a permit allowing for only “trace amounts,” leading to a lawsuit in 2019 from a private citizen and the San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper. In December 2023, PennEnvironment and Three Rivers Waterkeeper sued BVPV Styrenics LLC and its parent company, Styropek USA, Inc., for illegal discharges of plastics from their plastic manufacturing facility in Monaca, Pennsylvania. But accountability after the fact doesn’t change the amount pollution companies release in the first place.

To holistically chip away at our microplastic problems we need legislation that addresses the problem before it happens. A new federal bill could make the nurdle pollution that Charleston, and the rest of the US, is facing explicitly illegal. The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act would prohibit the dumping or spilling of nurdles from facilities or sources that make, use, package or transport them. It’s a common-sense solution to protect our waterways and helps elevate the health of people, wildlife, and our environment over plastic pollution.

What can you do:

1) Join us (Charleston Surfrider Foundation, Public Interest Research Group, and Environment America) for a World Migratory Bird Day Nurdle Count on May 11th from 3-5 pm at Waterfront Park. There will be speakers talking about World Migratory Bird Day and nurdles as well as a nurdle count! Sign up here!

2) Tell your senator to cosponsor the legislation.

Nurdle Count volunteer event info

GUEST AUTHOR: Kelly Leviker
Kelly Leviker is a Beyond Plastic Advocate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). She became a beyond plastic advocate after becoming fed-up with single-use plastic plaguing our environment. In her free time she enjoys hiking and botanical illustration.