A regular monitoring of water quality and floating plastics in the Ohio River in Beaver County revealed a major surge in the small plastic pellets known as nurdles, and a change in their appearance, according to researchers

A nurdle is a very small pellet of plastic that serves as raw material in the manufacture of plastic products.

Mountain Watershed Association (MWA) and Three Rivers Waterkeeper (3RWK) say they have conducted the “nurdle patrol” since it was established in 2020 to document the amount of nurdles in our waterways prior to when the Ethylene Shell Cracker Plant in Beaver County begins producing nurdles. 

“In two years of regular sampling, we have never seen these tiny plastic pieces in the Ohio River,” said James Cato, Community Organizer at MWA. “In Raccoon Creek in September, we found more plastic than we’ve ever recorded. After investigating, we were led to an outfall swarmed by schools of feeding fish, completely surrounded by small plastic pellets stuck to the riverbanks like a dusting of snow. The leaves of riparian plants were coated.”

Besides the major increase in the number of nurdles, researchers say they have documented a change in the physical appearance of the lentil-sized plastic pellets. They appear smaller than the  baseline nurdles documented, closer to the size of poppy seeds.

Researchers say nurdles are dangerous to aquatic wildlife both for their “toxin sponging” and their resemblance to fish or frog eggs, which causes animals to ingest them, ultimately poisoning or starving the creatures.

3RWK says they submitted complaints to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). MWA and 3RWK believe it is possible that this plastic pollution is an indicator of things to come in the region as the cracker plant begins production with other plastic and resin facilities such as BVPV Styrenics and BASF Corporation next door. “There is no reason why a company should be allowed to release this quantity of microplastics from their operations into rivers where people swim, fish, and recreate,” said Evan Clark, Three Rivers Waterkeeper.

Nurdle samples will be sent to a lab at Penn State Behrend for analysis of the polymer’s composition, which may shed light on how these plastics wound up in the waterways. Though the DEP was alerted to the issue, researchers say no cleanup or enforcement action has been taken other than confirming that the surge in nurdles in the Ohio River are likely not from the Shell Cracker Plant.