The Horror of Microplastics is Everywhere, Even on a Beach Near You

ACORN International Environment

            Pearl River      Summer and beaches are almost synonymous in many parts of the world.  The idyllic days with your feet in the sand, following crab tracks, walking in the waves at waters’ edge, as the sea birds hop away or soar overhead; it’s hard to beat.

All of that is true, even as I had recently read Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent environmental warning in The New Yorker about the ubiquitousness of plastics, particularly their impact on the water we drink, the food we eat, and marine life.  None of this was news to me.  I’d interviewed people on the radio about the Pacific blob of plastic and trash that stretches for miles.  I’d talked frequently to ACORN wastepickers in Mumbai and Delhi about plastic recycling and watched the processing.  I knew how much this was feel good and how little of it was really reused.  Nonetheless, I read the article carefully and in full.

One piece talked about nurdles.

Nurdles, which are key to manufacturing plastic product, are small enough to qualify as microplastics.  (It’s been estimated that ten trillion nurdles leak into the oceans, most from shipping containers that tip overboard.)

That was news to me.  I wasn’t familiar with the term, nurdles.  It also never occurred to me, likely because I hadn’t given it any thought, that in the massive numbers of shipping containers floating on huge ships traversing the world’s oceans, that it is likely routine that some of them fall overboard, perhaps from inept loading or fierce storms and high waves.

At the same time, it is hard not to hope, at least until you once again read a piece like Kolbert’s, that in the vastness of the ocean, the impact would be limited, even despite the evidence that these plastic particles are now everywhere.  They have been found in the deepest parts of the ocean, as well as in babies’ placenta.  We’re ingesting them in every drink and swallow without a doubt, yet even as we hear the Cassandras, the efforts to stop plastic proliferation continues to be meager.  Either through helplessness or exasperation, we push it out of our minds.

It’s summer after all.  The beach at Waveland and Bay St. Louis in the Mississippi Sound of the Gulf of Mexico is the one closest to New Orleans.  We decided to walk down there for a bit late on a recent afternoon to get our feet wet and maybe catch a cooler breeze coming off the water in the current heat wave.  The tide was coming in.  Walking in the wet sand. deepening our footprints, my eyes drifted to the flotsam marking the reach of the tide in the sand.  What did I see but a tiny white ball of something.  Picking it up, it was slightly squishy and definitely neither organic nor could I crush it between my fingers.  Were these nurdles?

Oh, mercy, walking far along the water up to the breakwater, my eyes were riveted on an almost unbroken line of these white plastic dots of death and danger, sometimes grouped in patches together or spread out as the waves had placed them.  These weren’t the invisible microplastics of my imagination at all.  They were decomposing nurdles that would have likely seemed no different than fish eggs to feeding birds and other marine life.  Worse, they might have been on the beach today, but there would absolutely be no plan to pick them up by hand along these miles and miles.  The tide would come in and take them out again, over and over and over.

It’s a terrible thing when something like this leaps from the page, so to speak, to reality on a beach near you.  Even more shocking is the reality that as you walk with your family back to the truck, you have turned your back on a plastic problem that no one seems willing and able to stop, even as it may be killing us and the environment around us.