More than 1.4 million plastic pellets have been collected in U.S. waterways since the citizen-led Nurdle Patrol project started in 2018.
About 1 million of them were picked up in August alone after an estimated 743 million plastic pellets, commonly called ‘nurdles,’ spilled from a cargo ship on the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
“One person collected 500,000 in 20 minutes,” said Jace Tunnell, founder of the Nurdle Patrol and director of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute’s Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. “There has been a crew going out almost daily to collect data on the river.”
With funds from the Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust, the Nurdle Patrol is promoting plastic pellet collection by giving away kits that organizations, schools, groups or individuals can use to collect, remove and document microplastic pollution in their communities.
“We’re trying to make this to where it’s not a University of Texas project and these organizations can make this their own project,” Tunnell said. “They would get their own citizen scientists together all around the country to solve the problem themselves in their own areas, and we would be there for support.”
The Matagorda Bay Mitigation Trust was formed last February as part of a $50 million settlement in a 2017 lawsuit the San Antonio Bay Waterkeepers brought against Formosa Plastic Corps., which was found in violation of the Clean Waters Act for discharging plastic pellets into waterways from its Point Comfort facility.
The trust manages and distributes the $50 million, of which the Nurdle Patrol will receive $1 million over the course of five years.
Kits include a duffle bag filled with 100 glass vials, tweezers, a field notebook, educational materials and promotional merchandise to help market the community-led projects.
To receive a kit, each organization must commit to sampling at least one location monthly, add the data into NurdlePatrol.org and allow Nurdle Patrol to feature them as a partner.
The data that the Nurdle Patrol collects can by used at the state or federal level to advocate for policy changes that prevent plastic pellets from getting into the environment. In each community, the data can also be provided to local officials to bring awareness to a plastic pollution issue and foster local solutions.
Using mitigation funds, the Nurdle Patrol also hired a new assistant who is putting the kits together and shipping them to partners. About 80 organizations have signed up. Tunnell hopes to add 100-120 new partners each year.
“A lot of groups want to get citizen-science projects going but don’t know where to start,” he said. “This is the perfect opportunity for that.”