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Plastic Pellets Pollute Lake Erie

Insights + Opinion

Millions of industrial plastic pellets pollute the sands beneath our feet, but you can’t see them unless you look closely, and no beach cleanup will ever make it better. 

“We picked up all the bags and bottles already,” said one young volunteer that collected trash on Whiskey Island at Wendy Park's Sandy Beach, along the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland as part of the Burning River Fest. I was sitting next to her on the ground sifting through leaf litter picking up the little pieces. I yelled, “I’ll give a dollar to the first person to find a pellet!” Within a few minutes a dozen volunteers were on their hand and knees picking up thousands of them. The amount of pellets on this beach is equivalent to a least one plastic bottle every three feet. 

Pre-production plastic pellets found on Whiskey Island's Sandy Beach in Cleveland, OH. Photo credit: Marcus Eriksen

Industries that make or use preproduction plastic pellets contribute to the problem of uncontrolled pellet loss. Preproduction plastic is the raw plastic resin materials that are molded into finished plastic products, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. Preproduction plastics are often produced in a resin pellet format, occasionally termed as “nurdles.” These small, 1- to 5- mm diameter pieces are produced in various shapes, colors and plastic types. Preproduction plastics can be produced in powder, granule and flake form.

As the Research Director at the 5 Gyres Institute, I’ve collected pellets on dozens of beaches around the world to support the work of the International Pellet Watch in Tokyo. If you send IPW a hundred pellets, they will tell you what chemicals are absorb into them from the environment. When pellets from this beach were sent to them three years ago, we were appalled to find that the concentrations of DDT on these pellets were the highest in the U.S.

Why does this matter? We know than marine organisms mistake pellets for food. In 2008, I caught a Rainbow Runner with 17 particles of plastic in its gut, including a little black pellet. We also know that changes in PH, temperature and surfactants in the stomachs of marine organisms can desorb chemicals from microplastics. By a few logical steps, we are eating our own trash. 

I caught a Rainbow Runner with 17 particles of plastic in its gut, including a little black pellet. Photo credit: Marcus Eriksen

What can be done? More states can pass legislation like California's AB 258, which put teeth in the enforcement of best management practices for plastic pellet producers. This bill mandates that producers sweep their factory floors, monitor screens in neighborhood storm drains and build barriers around the site where they unload truck and trains filled with pellets. It worked in California. It can work around the world. It can work here on Sandy Beach in Cleveland. 

Here’s what you can do. Look for pellets on your shoreline. Send 100 of them to IPW. You can learn how to document pellets per square meter by clicking here. Once you know the abundance of pellets and their toxicity, you can then organize locally to engage companies and policymakers to take responsibility. It’s going from science to solutions to make a slam dunk argument for the good of people and the environment.

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