What’s a nurdle and why is it a problem at Burlington’s lakefront?

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Published August 14, 2023 at 2:54 pm

Environmentalists are concerned about the rising number of nurdles washing up along Burlington’s lakefront.

Nurdles, tiny bits of plastic that serve as the raw material to produce larger plastic products, have been appearing in water systems around the world and are threatening wildlife and plants. Burlington is not immune.

“It’s an ongoing problem for us,” explained Emily Funke of BurlingtonGreen. “And people are just starting to realize the harmful impact of nurdles.”

A grassroots agency that advocates on behalf of the environment, BurlingtonGreen has been organizing regular “nurdle hunts” on Burlington Beach to clean up the nurdles that wash ashore. In the past two years, more than 13,000 nurdles have been collected during the cleanups.

Similar to the concerns raised when plastic bags and beverage bottles were showing up in oceans around the world, the nurdles present unique issues because of their small size.

Mistaking them for eggs of smaller species, fish, turtles and birds will eat the nurdles and eventually die through malnutrition or toxicity levels. The breakdown of plastic also means that it is working its way into drinking water, environmentalists say. The long-term effects on humans are not known due to its relative newness.

Again, because of their small size, they can be carried well into shore areas through wind and rain where they can be ingested by land creatures.

“Sometimes we find them well away from the shoreline,” Funke said. “We will see them up along the walking paths. They are really evident after rainfalls where you can see them on the water surface or scattered along the beach.”

Nurdles get into the water through two main sources, according to environmentalists.

In the Great Lakes, they escape through poorly designed containers that are being transported by cargo ships. They are also finding their way into water systems through land-based manufacturers that, through lack of regulatory oversight, are releasing them either knowingly or unknowingly.

Funke says BurlingtonGreen and its volunteer base go out three to five times a week to collect the nurdles.

“Right now, it seems to be a hard problem to fix because it is continually happening,” said Funke, adding that a lot of damage has already been done. “But we have to keep at it. It’s largely an issue that no one knows about. Hopefully, the public takes notice and will start complaining to governments.”

In the meantime, BurlingtonGreen will be heading back to the lakefront to do what it can to combat the issue right here.

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