NUMBER OF THE DAY

Big Oil’s Toxic Plastic ‘Nurdles,’ by the Numbers

The tiny plastic pellets have become a big environmental problem

Photo illustration, source: dottedhippo/iStock/Getty Images Plus

25 tons: That’s how many tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles” spilled into the Mississippi River near New Orleans earlier this month. (By Marker’s calculation, that works out to about 1.1 trillion nurdles.)

The spill was attributed to a container ship operated by a French shipping firm that was allowed to continue on its way. “No fines have been issued,” an editorial in Louisiana paper The Advocate recently complained. “No penalties have been levied. No one has been asked, or told, to clean up the mess.” The shipping company has reportedly hired a waste-management firm to conduct some cleanup work, but the ultimate responsibility remains unclear. Local residents have been left to scoop up masses of the pellets from the river banks while the rest drift toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Nurdles are “virgin plastic” used as the starting point to make all sorts of plastic products. The lentil-size pellets are sent to manufacturers who melt them down and mold them into the many plastic geegaws in your life.

Nurdle spills are not uncommon: By one estimate, 250,000 tons of nurdles wind up in the ocean every year. And in many ways, they resemble the more familiar environmental hazard of oil spills: Besides harming aquatic ecosystems, entering the food chain, and being “persistent and potentially toxic” according to environmental charity Fidra, they are often produced by oil giants like Shell and Exxon. And if anything, they may become more common since falling oil prices have big petroleum companies, as the New York Times recently put it, “racing to make more plastic.”

Big Oil may be struggling, but it’s still finding innovative ways to pollute the ocean.

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