Plastic Resin Pellets Information

What are Plastic Resin Pellets?

  • Plastic resin pellets are the raw material form for the fabrication of plastic articles.
  • They are also known as pre production plastic and as nurdles.
  • Plastic resin also comes in a powdered form.
  • Pellets range from barrel shaped to disc shaped and measure 2 to 5mm.
  • They are usually opaque but accumulate a yellow to brown stain over time in the ocean.
  • Plastic resin pellets are not easily seen and need to be actively looked for.
  • They are found in every ocean and on the coasts of every continent.

Our surveys

  • Tangaroa Blue Ocean Care Society first detected plastic resin pellets while conducting a survey of small plastic fragments at Quarry Bay in early 2007.
  • Since then they have been found on all beaches we survey from Cape Naturalist to Cape Leeuwin.
  • Their observed distribution has ranged from being lightly scattered along strand lines on open sandy beaches to a concentration greater than 6000 per square metre in a site which traps debris moving along the coast.
  • Plastic resin pellets are largely out of site or buried during summer but become very mobile and more visible during winter onshore conditions.

Where do Plastic Resin Pellets come from?

  • Alarming volumes of plastic resin pellets are spilt around the globe each year during shipping, land transport and handling at plastic fabrication sites.
  • Pellets are flushed out to sea via river creek and drainage systems and both wash up on adjacent or remote coasts and circulate in the ocean currents1 .
  • On any coast there is likely a mix of regionally spilt and globally circulating pellets.

Why are Plastic Resin Pellets a problem?

  • All plastic remaining in the ocean system fragments over time into microscopic pieces and the smaller the size the greater the hazard potential to the whole range of marine life.
  • Plastic resin pellets resemble both fish eggs and when stained they can also resemble krill.
  • Their ingestion can cause internal blockages in smaller sea and bird life.
  • But what new research is showing could be by far the most serious threat posed particularly by plastic resin pellets and generally by all plastic in the marine environment. Plastic Resin Pellets act as a conduit for Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) into the Marine Food web.

What are Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)?

  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), a complete global pollution story in themselves, are industrial and agricultural chemicals such as PCBs and DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) which enter the ocean system.
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants also have a global land and atmospheric presence2 .
  • Japanese researchers at the University of Agriculture and Technology in Tokyo have recently found that plastic resin pellets absorb these chemicals from seawater.
  • Concentrations on the pellets in one of their tests were one million times compared to the levels in the surrounding seawater3 & 4 .
  • Tangaroa Blue Ocean Care Society has sent samples of plastic resin pellets to Internation Pellet Watch in Japan for testing.

Effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants on life

  • Persistent organic pollutants are now proven to be Endocrine Disruptors – synthetic chemical compounds which interfere in differing ways and rates, with the hormonal functioning of organisms.
  • Growth, development and reproduction all can be affected in organisms from plankton through to humans.
  • The concentration of persistent organic pollutants magnifies as they are passed up through the food chain.
  • Plastic resin pellets with these absorbed chemicals pose the potential of injecting far greater concentrations into the food chain at particular (trophic) levels.

What can be done about Plastic Resin Pellets?

  • It is not possible to extract globally circulating small to microscopic plastic including plastic resin pellets from the marine environment.
  • The initial focus should therefore be on stopping the spillages and preventing marine pollution generally.
  • Pellets circulating through heavily polluted seas in one part of the world can then carry their toxic load into remote areas thus posing a threat in relatively unpolluted areas. From our limited surveys at least 10% of pellets show significant staining and presumed contamination. This demonstrates that an area such as the capes coastal region which is largely free of local industrial pollution sources can none the less become polluted with chemicals such as, DDE, PCBs and Dioxins.
  • All marine plastic debris carries some level of these persistent chemicals and in that sense plastic resin pellets stand out as a marker for this marine pollution process.
  • Awareness of this issue in Australia is not high but its ramifications are very serious. A scientific assessment of the persistent organic pollutant – marine plastic pollution problem is urgently needed as is monitoring of our local and regional inputs of plastic resin pellets into the marine environment.


  1. “AB 258: Getting Over The Nurdle Hurdle” – Heal The Bay Organisation
  2. United Nations Envirnment Programme website
  3. “A Brief Analysis of Organic Pollutants Sorbed to Pre and Post-Production Plastic Particles from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel River Watersheds ” by C. J. Moore, G.L. Lattin, A.F. Zellers.
  4. “Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment by Yukie Mato, Tomohik Isobe, Hideshige Takada, Haruyuki Kahnehiro, Chiyoko Ohtake,and Tsuguchika Kaminuma, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2001, 35, 318-324”

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