pacific gyre garbage patch

How nurdles are invading our oceans

In our last post, we covered what exactly a nurdle is, and warned that - much to our dismay - nurdles are far more pervasive than most people realize. The thing is, they often escape during the production process, carried by run-off to the coast, or during shipping when they’re mistakenly tipped into the waves.

Once in the water, nurdles are swiftly carried by currents, ultimately winding up in huge circulating ocean systems called gyres, where they convene to plan their tactics. The earth has five gyres that act as gathering points, but the headquarters of Nurdle Ocean Domination are in the Pacific Ocean, where the comparative enormity of the gyre, and the resulting concentration of pollution, is so huge that it’s known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.

Here, nurdles have good company. This gyre draws in all kinds of pollution. But because they don’t biodegrade, plastics dominate—and they come from other sources besides nurdles, too. You know those tiny beads you see in your face wash or your toothpaste? They’re often made of plastic, and after you’ve flushed them down the drain, some also end up in this giant garbage patch, much to the delight of the nurdles building up their plastic army there. And then there are the large pieces of unrecycled plastic litter—like bottles and carrier bags—transported by run-off from land to sea. Over time these plastic chunks turn into a kind of nurdle too—but one that’s been worn down by the elements, not made in a factory.

And as if they weren’t threatening enough, the rough, pitted surfaces of these microplastics—the name we give to all those collective plastic bits— waterborne chemicals “stick” or adhere to them, making them toxic. This gathering has grown so immense that the oceanic garbage patch can shift from around the size of Texas, to something the size of the United States.

But while this toxic tornado is circulating, the birds, fish, filter-feeders, whales, and crustaceans around it are just going about their daily business—which means they’re looking for food.

Unfortunately for them, tiny bits of floating plastic look a lot like fish eggs and other enticing bits of food. But once ingested, microplastics have a very different, and terrible, habit of sticking around. Inside an animal’s stomach, they not only damage its health with the cocktail of toxins they carry, but can also lead to starvation, because although nurdles may be ingested, they’re never digested, tricking an animal into feeling like it’s continually full, and leading to its eventual death. When one organism consumes another, microplastics and their toxins are then passed up through the food chain.

And that’s how, bit by bit, nurdles accomplish their goal, growing ever more pervasive as they wipe out marine life and reshape the ocean’s ecosystems.

So, how to break this cycle? The best solution would be to take plastics out of the equation altogether. That’ll take a lot of time, but requires only small, collective changes—like more recycling, replacing plastics with paper and glass, and ditching that toothpaste with the microbeads. If we accomplish these things, perhaps over time fewer and fewer nurdles will turn up at that giant garbage patch, their army of plastics will grow weaker, and they’ll surrender the ocean to its true keepers once more.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The nurdles’ quest for ocean domination - Kim Preshoff

Animation by Reflective Films