Pennsylvania Legacies #169: Trawling for Nurdles

Almost everything made of plastic starts out as “nurdles”: lentil-sized bits that sometimes get loose and end up in rivers and streams, where aquatic creatures easily mistake them for food. On the heels of a train derailment that spilled carloads of plastic pellets and crude oil into the Allegheny River in May, western PA watershed groups are working with university researchers and citizen scientists to measure the presence of nurdles in the region’s waterways.

Anything made of plastic starts out as fungible feedstock that’s melted and reshaped into something new. These tiny pellets of proto-plastic, called “nurdles,” can easily get loose and end up in places where they shouldn’t be — like rivers and streams, and the digestive tracts of animals that live there. 

Particularly in western Pennsylvania, where abundant shale gas is driving an anticipated boom in plastics production, there’s concern about the amount of nurdle pollution already present in waterways.

A collaboration of conservation groups, academic researchers, and citizen scientists is working to document the problem — in part, to get a better picture of possible future risks associated with producing nurdles in the region. 

A nurdle spill in Allegheny County in May 2022. Images courtesy of Mountain Watershed Association.


James Cato, Community Organizer at Fayette County-based Mountain Watershed Association (MWA), spearheaded the sampling efforts in the fall of 2020. 

“Originally, it was just Mountain Watershed Association going out. We worked with a resident who’s a volunteer and he brought us out on his motor boat. So it started very grassroots. It was really just us going out and doing sampling,” said Cato.  

Since then, the project has grown significantly. MWA has partnered with research labs at universities in the region, including Dr. Sam Mason at Penn State, and the Sanchez Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. This research will hopefully help determine the composition of the nurdles and what kinds of chemicals from the waterways are adhering to them.

“Hopefully we can get a better idea of how exactly these nurdles are reacting with the environment that they’re being released into — our environment,” said Cato. “Are nurdles something that we should be wary of picking up with our bare hands? Are they potentially poisoning the wildlife that we see along the riverbanks? These are things that we’re hoping to find out soon via the work of these great labs.”

Hopefully we can get a better idea of how exactly these nurdles are reacting with the environment that they’re being released into — our environment.

MWA is looking to expand their nurdle patrol efforts further with citizen science — a tool that nurdle patrols in other parts of the country have used to their success.

The original nurdle patrol protocol is easy for citizen scientists to execute. Participants select a location and take 10 minutes to look for nurdles within a five-foot radius. If nurdles are found, participants look for another five minutes. 

“It’s a very simple protocol, it doesn’t take too much time, and especially for people who go out on the water a lot it’s probably something that they’d be interested in doing. They can go out, just do a short little patrol, help keep their waterway safe, and add to a network of data that’s nationwide,” said Cato.  

If you live in Western Pennsylvania and are interested in participating in a nurdle patrol as a citizen scientist, reach out to [email protected].