BENTON HARBOR, MI — The Halloween storm of 2014 had a special trick in store for the beach and it was certainly no treat.
The storm, which created 21-foot waves on southern Lake Michigan, brought huge amounts of debris ashore up and down the coast. In Benton Harbor, beachgoers at Jean Klock Park found something unexpected amid the mass of weeds, tires and broken wood.
White plastic pellets also littered the sand.
“It’s like the belly of the lake just belched everything up that was in it,” said Carol Drake, who has spent years stewarding the city park. “There were just nurdles everywhere.”
“Nurdles,” or resin pellets used in manufacturing, are being found in surprisingly high quantity on the shore in every Great Lakes state and province. The small pieces, about the size of a lentil, are raw plastic that’s melted down to form a variety of molded, extruded or blown products. Nurdles are different than typical plastic beach litter because they aren’t touched by consumers. Instead, they are being lost somewhere in the manufacturing supply chain and ending up in the water.
How that exactly occurs isn’t well known. There have been large spills documented within the Great Lakes basin, but researchers who study their prevalence on regional shorelines say they’re most likely being lost in transit during container loading and/or improperly disposed of in factories.
What is clear is that nurdle pellets are present in the lakes and tributaries, where researchers are discovering that they can absorb and concentrate waterborne contaminants, potentially serving as a vector for toxic chemicals or pathogens when they’re mistaken for food by fish or birds.
“They look just like big grains of sand,” said Patricia Corcoran, an earth sciences professor at the University of Western Ontario who has studied the prevalence of nurdles on Great Lakes beaches. “It’s not something that you would notice if you’re just going to the beach… but if you actually were to lie down on the beach and sift through the sediment that’s just right in front of your face you would easily see them.”
In 2018, Corcoran’s research team examined 66 beaches in each Great Lakes state and Ontario. They found nurdle pellets in a variety of colors on 42 of them, at an average of 19 pellets per square meter. The heaviest concentration, by a large margin, was at Baxter Beach at the southern tip of Lake Huron in Sarnia, Ontario. There, more than 7,200 pellets were found in the top two inches of sand along the high water mark.
Sarnia, not coincidentally, is home to more than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries — a massive petrochemical complex known as Chemical Valley. Researchers suspect manmade creeks in Sarnia that flow north into Lake Huron are helping deposit the pellets at the beach, rather than taking them south with the St. Clair River into Lake St. Clair.
“I do think that it’s related to proximity to industry,” said Corcoran. “The fact that they’re located so close to industry is a big indicator that industry does have a role to play in, basically, letting some of these pellets spill.”
About 170 miles away from Sarnia on the shore of Lake Ontario, the research team found about 2,600 nurdle pellets at Bronte Beach in Oakville, Ont. near Toronto. The next highest concentration was about 970 in Rossport, Ont. on the northern shore of Lake Superior. Rossport, at the eastern end of Nipigon Bay, is close to the largest known pellet spill in the Great Lakes; a Jan. 21, 2008 Canadian Pacific Railway train derailment near Cavers Cove that spilled a huge volume of polyethylene pellets when four cars tumbled off a nearshore cliff.
Since then, Chuck Hutterli has spent the past 13 years cleaning pellets off his beach near Nipigon.
“Yep, they’re still coming,” said Hutterli, who modified a snow shovel with a filter screen and even built a sluice gate powered by a pressure washer at one point to try and remove the white beads that keep appearing after windstorms.
“It’s aggravating as hell.”
Hutterli said Canadian Pacific has paid for cleanups over the years, but he wonders whether there’s a submerged rail car still out there somewhere leaking the pellets. The water depth below the derailment site is hundreds of feet deep, making a full investigation difficult.
“There’s got to be some kind of explanation for why these beads are still showing up after 13 years,” he said. “Where are they vectoring from? No one can answer that exactly.”
The pellets he finds now are weathered and chipped. “It’s insidious,” said Hutterli, who is dismayed at the volume of various plastics he picks up during annual beach cleanups. “The beads are getting ground up into microplastics, and you can never pick that up.”
In Benton Harbor, Drake organized a 2018 cleanup at Jean Klock Park that involved a two-man sifting device which was able to remove the pellets from beach sand.
“I’m sure there’s more washing up,” Drake said. “Every time I scoop the sand up in my hand, there’s tons of plastic in it.”
Could the nurdles in Benton Harbor be from the 2008 spill? Experts say it’s possible. Lake Superior’s water has a 190-year retention time (or, how long it takes for all the lake water to be replaced), but floating pellets, aided by wind and currents, could have reached southern Lake Michigan within a decade if prevailing winds pushed them toward the St. Marys River, delivering them to Lake Huron near the Straits of Mackinac, where strong currents flow back and forth between Huron and Lake Michigan.
Guy Meadows, an expert in Great Lakes nearshore currents who is director of the Marine Engineering Lab at Michigan Tech University, said it’s “definitely possible” for nurdles to make the 600-some mile trip between Rossport and Benton Harbor in about six years.
“The right combination of storms passing overhead could complete the circuit to get particles deep into southern Lake Michigan, most likely along the Wisconsin shoreline and around the bottom of the lake,” said Meadows.
However, the derailment is far from the only source of nurdles in the lakes; evidenced by the various colors and shapes of pellets found in Corcoran’s study. On Lake Ontario, more than 1,200 different pellet types were found at Bronte Beach, which researchers suspect is linked to a large number of plastic industries in the Don River and Humber River watersheds, which enter the lake at Toronto.
There is evidence to suggest the pellets are reaching the lakes via many waterways. Study authors found a correlation between pellet abundance and rivers. A statistically greater number were found on beaches within three miles of a river mouth. There were also correlations with population totals and the number of plastic industries in the watershed.
Researchers found more than a hundred pellets at Lake Michigan beaches in Wisconsin at Shebyogan, Milwaukee and Kenosha, and Holland and Warren Dunes state parks in Michigan. Similar amounts were found on Lake Erie at Fairport Harbor, Ohio; Lake Huron at Sunset Beach near Goderich; Lake Ontario at Sodus Point, N.Y.; and Katharine Cove on Lake Superior.
MLive journalists found several dozen white pellets in a small section of North Beach in South Haven near the Black River channel in early August while working on this story.
“We see them in the river every time in rains,” said Tim Hoellein, a Loyola University Chicago ecologist who studies how plastic interacts with aquatic life. “They’re small, they float and they’re white. It would be easy to mistake them for something else, like another piece of trash or a plant seed. But once you see them, you start to see more of them.”
“They are really pervasive.”
The Great Lakes are certainly not the only water bodies with a nurdle problem. The pellets are widespread in the oceans. They are found in abundance along the California coast and along the Gulf of Mexico, where coastal activists have formed “nurdle patrols” and successfully sued a polluter under the Clean Water Act, winning a major settlement.
In 2019, Formosa Plastics of Taiwan agreed to pay $50 million to clean up pellets reaching coastal waters from its plant in Port Lavaca, Texas. Spills elsewhere have occurred with slow or minimal cleanup efforts that allow the plastic to disperse beyond containment. In New Orleans, a cargo ship spilled millions of nurdles into the Mississippi River last summer and sailed away a few hours later without any penalties. No large-scale cleanup has occurred. Nurdles are coating Sri Lankan beaches this summer following a huge container ship fire.
Nurdles are generally a low priority for environmental regulators, largely in part because they are not considered hazardous material. But that doesn’t mean they are benign. Animals can mistake them for food, leading to digestive issues and starvation. Pellets and other microplastics can absorb and concentrate contaminants, such as toxic chemicals in the water, and become exposure vectors for viruses and pathogens when birds or fish eat them.
When it comes to chemicals, one question researchers are trying to answer is whether or not the plastics amplify biomagnification of contaminants up the food chain. In other words, are they making large fish more unsafe to consume than they would be otherwise?
In 2018, researchers suspended nurdle pellets in Muskegon Lake for three months. After one month, they found pollutants like PFAS, PCBs and PAHs had concentrated in a biofilm that developed on the pellets at levels hundreds of times higher than background levels.
“There is that potential for magnification,” said Alan Steinman, a Grand Valley State University researcher who led the study. “If it’s taken up by an organism, we don’t know if it will be further biomagnified and have a negative impact.”
Lawmakers have taken some notice of the problem. In May, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat announced a bill in Congress that would prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets and other pre-production plastic into waterways.
The plastic and chemicals industry is opposing the legislation and says the problem should be addressed through efforts like Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary program designed to prevent plastic pellet loss along the supply chain.
“We are concerned that, as written, a provision within this legislation opens the door to regulatory overreach that could subject countless small plastics operations across America to heavy-handed federal enforcement,” wrote George O’Connor, a Plastics Industry Association spokesperson. “The plastics industry has made strides to address this very issue through Operation Clean Sweep and OCS blue. Plastic is an essential material and we completely agree that it doesn’t belong in the environment. We look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers and regulators on reasonable solutions to reduce the issue of pellet loss.”
Others say the voluntary nature of the program, the continued presence of nurdles in waterbodies and the lack of external auditing signal the program isn’t working.
John Dulmes, director of the Michigan Chemistry Council, said the organization is not aware of any “significant incidents regarding resin loss to the environment in Michigan.”
“Our members have made resin containment a major goal, and in addition to industry’s current efforts, resin releases would already be regulated by state law that prohibits injurious discharge,” Dulmes said.
Sherri Mason, sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend who, while a chemistry professor at State University of New York at Fredonia, conducted some of the initial studies on microplastic in the Great Lakes, said nurdles are “a much bigger problem in the Great Lakes than people fully appreciate or understand.” But the picture is even larger.
Mason is concerned that a new plastic flaking facility coming to Erie, Pa. is going to further exacerbate the Great Lakes plastic pollution problem. The International Recycling Group (IRG) facility, which is in planning stages, would import plastic trash, sort it and chop it into flake for use as fuel.
“We already know that nurdles get lost along the chain,” Mason said. “Similarly, we’ll see this happen with this flake. It’s going to get lost and it’s going to end up in our lake and our fish.”