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Nurdles & Beach Polution in Costa Rica

29 October 2009 1,049 views 4 Comments

nurdles.PuntaUvaTake a look at the picture to the left. Really look at it. Can you tell what it is? No, they aren’t pebbles. Try again. Use your imagination. Here’s a hint: I found them this week along the beach at Punta Uva on the Carribbean Coast of Costa Rica. No, they aren’t any kind of shell or sea creature. Not a beach pebble or sand particle either. Give up? They are nurdles.

Nurdles. Such a cute word. Sounds like a pool toy or a board game, perhaps. But they are nothing like that. Nurdles are plastic resin pellets that are the base material for all the plastic things that are generally made. From water bottles to synthetic clothing to plastic shopping bags. These plastic pellets are used to make a huge number of materials that probably fill your house. Over 250 billion pounds a year are shipped around the world to make lots of plastic stuff. I found this bunch in just 30 minutes by quickly looking at the high tide line along an approximately 10 foot long section of beach. The sad part of the story is that this beach, Punta Uva, is widely called one of the most idyllic beaches along the Carribbean Coast of Costa Rica. (insert picture of punta Uva)

These nurdles were by no means obvious. Normally I consider Punta Uva pretty much garbage-free. The beach is almost always empty, just the way I like it. Most of the beaches here on the Carribbean Coast are, especially compared to some of the mobbed beaches in the NY Metro area that I’m used to. The only reason I was actually looking for nurdles was that I read this article about all the plastic floating around in the ocean, from the famous North Pacific Gyre to the various other garbage-dump like vortexes of the seas. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d actually find any nurdles here in Costa Rica. It was hard to believe that a beautiful place like Punta Uva would have such a polution problem. But I’ve learned that this isn’t a problem with just any one country or any one beach. This problem is so widespread and insidious that it literally touches us all. In just 30 minutes of looking around a tide line, I found that even in my new country, sometimes dubbed as an eco-paradise, the world’s obsession with plastic still penetrates.

We’re on the eastern (Caribbean) coast of Costa Rica this week. We’re staying in Puerto Viejo looking for a long-term rental. We want to live on the beach near beautiful palm trees and azure waters, and beaches that range from pristine white sands to the black sands of Playa Negra, which come from volcanoes. But what I discovered is that these “pristine” beaches are not so pristine. I guess I didn’t really believe they were totally pristine to begin with. I mean, I’ve been hearing that the coral reefs are becoming quite damaged due to silty runoff from development for quite some time. But those nurdles came as quite a surprise. I mean, they are hard to see. During the first 5 minutes that I looked for them, I actually didn’t notice any. In fact, I could have sworn that those nurdles were actually tiny stones. But then one of them caught my eye and I realized the shape was a little too regular to be a stone. But I didn’t have my microscope down at the beach. So I did what I thought was the next best thing – I bit the suspect object between my teeth. It was then that I became sure that it was made of plastic. It may look like a tiny stone, but it felt like plastic. Once I knew what I was looking for, the nurdles were easy to find. And they were everywhere. I couldn’t stop looking for them. Every time I found one I would cringe. A passerby listening to me would have heard a crazy-woman with her face almost touching the sand, shouting words to myself like, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe this!” I wonder now how many pieces of even smaller plastic were in my search area. I wouldn’t have been able to detect smaller pieces of plastic without a microscope, but I know they are there. After all, this kind of plastic never really disappears. I know from all my reading that it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, forming a not-so-delicious seawater soup. Soon we’ll have entire beaches partly made up of ground plastic, that is, if we don’t already have that.

Punta Uva, Costa Rica

Punta Uva, Costa Rica

When I came home and re-read some articles about floating plastic sea-trash, I kind of freaked. Evidently, plastic floating in the ocean is like a sponge for toxic chemicals like PCBs. I bit a few nurdles on the beach to see if they were plastic or rock. Granted, I spit them out. But PCBs? I think I might be radioactive right now. Think of that next time you get caught in a wave on your favorite beach and manage to accidentally swallow some water and a little sand. Likely, you swallowed some PCB-rich plastic too. You can’t escape it. It’s there, most likely on every beach in the world. And it’s not going away anytime soon. There seems to be no way to clean it up either. We don’t have special nurdle magnets.

Are you wondering how the nurdles got to my beach in Costa Rica? From all my reading, I’ve learned that there are several possibilities. One likely possibility is that they were washed off a ship. Millions of nurdles are shipped around the world every day, from plastic production plants to manufacturing plants. Just a pound of nurdles has about 25,000 pellets. Even when a ship loses a few handfulls here andthere, they scatter far and wide, travelling around the world. Sometimes they get caught in the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Yes, we have a garbage dump in the middle of the ocean, twice the size of Texas, and with no way to clean it up. And if those fallen nurdles don’t get stuck in an ocean gyre, they float around on currents until they land on your favorite beach. Or maybe they get eaten by some krill before that (and then the krill gets eaten by a whale). Or maybe a seabird gobbles it up. Back to the source again, maybe the nurdles are being transported by train instead of boat. But a pound or two falls off the train onto the ground. Then it rains and washes the nurdles into a stream, and then a river, and then right back out to sea. No matter how it happens, it all comes to the same thing in the end.

I challenge all my readers who visit beaches: look for your own nurdles. Do your own experiment like I did. Take a short section of beach and see how many you can find. Look close, and don’t mistake a nurdle for a rock. Maybe if we all face the hidden existence of the nurdle, we can all do something to stop this before we have entire nurdle beaches. Before all sea creatures (and us!) are poisoned.

I think maybe the best we can do at this point is to stop using all that plastic. There’s no other way. If we want plastic, nurdles will continue to be produced at a huge rate and will find their way into the sea. I mean, we have bigger problems than just nurdles anyway. I found many larger pieces of plastic on that day at the beach. Plus, many of those lovely facial and body scrubs we use these days actually have plastic pellets in them. Can you believe that? We are actually washing our faces in plastic and then washing the tiny plastic balls right down the drain. It’s mind-boggling. It isn’t just plastic pellets either. It’s the plastic grocery bags, water bottles, sand toys, and every other plastic doo-hickey you have in your house. Our lives are filled with plastic. The nurdles are just the most hidden evidence. They are so numerous, they won’t be hidden for long.

Look for them. I dare you.

More information on ocean trash & nurdles:

What’s a nurdle?

The World’s Rubbish Dump…


Why Plastic is the Scourge of Sea Life

Message in a Bottle


  • Canada Guy said:

    We all know disposable water bottles are wasteful and bad for the environment, yet their production is growing rapidly everywhere. Just 20 years ago the market for plastic water bottles was practically nonexistent, but today we produce billions of these completely unnecessary products. There can be only one sane response, plastic water bottles must be banned!

    .-= Canada Guy´s last blog ..Water Bottle Manifesto =-.

  • sheri said:

    There are admittedly certain things that really must be plastic, there is no other solution, but if people would make the choice to only buy it when there is absolutely no other choice we could change our environment, our world and our habit of being a throw away society. My grandma has a cabinet full of glasses all given away when you bought jelly or other food items. They are cute, and they have lasted forty years. Why can’t we go back to that instead of plastic or even glass that needs to be recycled? Think of the difference it would make.
    Thanks for the intro to Nurdles, I had no idea.

  • Heather said:

    I have never seen or even heard of a nurdle before…. very interesting…. and sad.

  • Katherine Havener said:

    What an eye opening post. I knew about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but not about how plastic debris is washing up to our beaches. Incredibly sad.
    .-= Katherine Havener´s last blog ..What’s the Hardest Part of Parenting For You? =-.