Plastic pollution is a growing problem in the world's oceans. A new citizen science initiative, called the Nurdle Patrol, is tracking a danger to marine life that is washing ashore by the millions across the Gulf of Mexico.
They're called nurdles. And what's that exactly?
"A nurdle is a plastic pellet. It is very small. It is typically used to manufacture larger plastic products," said Maya Burke, science policy coordinator at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.
Each nurdle is about the size of a lady bug. In bulk, they get melted down to form all kinds of plastic products -- from bottles, to traffic cones, to coffee-makers and more.
Burke recently found the first two nurdles in Florida, on a beach near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, as part of a Gulf-wide volunteer effort to track these little plastic spheres.
The Nurdle Patrol began after an apparent spill of nurdles on a beach in Corpus Christi, Texas, in September of last year.
"I looked down and saw these pellets in the high tide line, and I reached down and picked up. I knew exactly what is was. They were nurdles and there were millions of them," said Jace Tunnell, director of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute.
He called the Coast Guard, who sent out the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
"They came back and said uh, we don't know what to do. Nobody is monitoring this. We have never had to deal with it. And there is no way we could even clean all these pellets up," he said.
Based on what he saw, Tunnell calculated there were about a million nurdles per mile over a 30-mile stretch.
He put out a call for volunteers -- beach-combing detectives, if you will -- to take just 10 minutes at a local shore looking for nurdles.
"So that's what started the Nurdle Patrol. We needed to know how long these nurdles are going to be here and how far out they had spread," said Tunnell.
Via the Facebook page, "Nurdle Patrol," they began getting reports from as far away as Mexico City.
Whether those were part of the Texas spill, or not, is unclear.
But sometimes, the pellets can be traced back to their source, based on their size, shape or color.
Often, fish and birds mistake the pellets for food.
"If they eat enough of them they end up starving to death because there really is no nutritional value to these things. They also they act like sponges absorbing toxins like DDTs and PCBs, and whenever they eat them you know their guts are warm so the toxins end up getting released, and if they eat enough of those and there is enough toxins, it could be lethal for the animal."
As to the two nurdles Burke found in Tampa, where they came from is also a mystery -- whether they washed in from Texas, or were spilled by a local manufacturer or were once the filling in a stufed animal.
She made another nurdle-hunting trip recently to Ben T. Davis Beach in Tampa, and found none. But she says it was not a waste of time.
"If you’re at the beach, just take 10 minutes of looking and if you don’t find anything, zeros are good data too and you can submit it to that Facebook group, the Nurdle Patrol, and then you are just documenting where they aren't."
Burke says nurdles are almost the same size as small, seed-sized air bladders found in a type of seagrass that is commonly found on the shore, known as sargassum.
The way to tell them apart is to give them a little squeeze. If it's sargassum, it will pop between your fingers. If it's a nurdle, it's hard and it won't disintegrate.
If nurdles are found in the high tide line, or the uppermost area where the water laps on the beach, that could indicate a fresh spill. If nurdles are found higher up on the beach, in the dry brown grasses, that suggests an older spill or pollution event.
"I always encourage people to keep it in perspective. I have been looking for these for several months and on the stretch of beach where I found the nurdles, there probably tens of bottles, bottle caps, cigarette butts, cigar tips, diapers, flip flops, Styrofoam pieces, all other sort of plastic pollution,” said Burke.
She said she hopes the exercise leads people to think about changes they can make to reduce plastic pollution, whether by picking up debris on the beach, choosing food and other store-bought products that aren't wrapped in plastic, or finding other ways to cut back on waste.
Tunnell says he hopes the Nurdle Patrol will expand Gulf-wide and provide a better picture of the plastic that is washing up on the coastline. He is giving talks in Florida later this month, with stops planned in Sarasota May 23 and the Florida Keys, May 25 and 26.
Other grassroots efforts have led to at least one major lawsuit against Formosa, a plastic company in Texas, for allegedly dumping nurdles into the waterways for years.
A spokesman for Formosa declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation, but said in a statement: "Formosa Plastics is very active in eliminating the loss of plastics and pellets. "
Tunnell says taking on industry is not his goal.
"We are not pointing the finger at industry. We are just collecting the data. It is showing high concentrations in these areas. Where is the source coming from? And really it is the job of the environmental agencies to figure that out. And I think that that's exactly what they are doing."
And that's important, because even as awareness is rising about the harm done by eight million tons of plastic getting dumped in the oceans each year, global demand for plastics continues to grow.
The Gulf of Mexico Nurdle Patrol isn't the only one of its kind in the world. There are similar, citizen-science initiatives in Europe to track plastic pellet pollution. A recent British study estimated that between five and 53 billion nurdles may spilled into the environment each year by the plastics industry.