Public Lab Research note

Summary: Public Lab’s microplastics virtual event

by bhamster | September 30, 2020 23:35 30 Sep 23:35 | #24681 | #24681

On September 23, 2020, twenty people spanning seven time zones gathered at Public Lab's virtual event to talk about microplastics as we wrapped up a research area review on the topic. We shared stories, asked and answered questions, saw a quick overview of ways to get started in microplastics monitoring, and built connections with each other.

Read on below for a summary of the call, and see a recording of the call here along with links to resources shared.

You can also check out a summary of the research area review and all who contributed here: Summary: Public Lab's microplastics research area review


We were joined by three phenomenal storytellers who spoke about their experiences and ongoing work in microplastics research:

Jace Tunnell

As the Director of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve and leader behind Nurdle Patrol, Jace recounted how he started seeing nurdles (industrial plastic pellets) on shorelines in Texas in 2018. He began collecting these spilled nurdles with a handful of other concerned residents, and with growing interest and participation from people all along the Gulf Coast, their efforts grew into the Nurdle Patrol citizen science project. You can read more about their story and survey methods here: Nurdle Patrol's 10-minute beach survey for plastic pellets.

Jace and Nurdle Patrol have since been involved in bringing forth a Texas Nurdle Bill, which proposes changes to stormwater permits for plastics manufacturers, mandating "zero discharge of plastic pellets." They've also created kits for community scientists starting their own nurdle patrols, and are currently working on research to "fingerprint" nurdles in an effort to track different plastic pellet spills and sources.

Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones

Winnie is the Science Lead of the Round the World voyages at eXXpedition, which runs all-female sailing voyages investigating the impact of plastic and toxic pollution in our oceans. She's also a Research Fellow in marine litter at the University of Plymouth in the UK.

Winnie spoke about the voyage's ongoing research activities both at sea and on the ground in communities worldwide. On the boat, they're sampling microplastics off the ocean surface but also going deeper, measuring microplastics at different depths in the water and learning how ocean currents are moving those plastics around the globe.

On land, they're collaborating with Dr. Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia to do land-based trash assessments and contributing their data through the Marine Debris Tracker app (co-created by Dr. Jambeck). These land-based assessments include studying grocery and convenience stores for what products are commonly sold, how they're packaged, and where they're manufactured. The research team also surveys local streets for litter. Many of the places that eXXpedition's voyages visit are small islands with limited capacity for waste management, and yet they're dealing with plastic pollution that comes from afar. By recording where plastic litter originates and occurs on land, Winnie's team gets closer to figuring out the sources of ocean microplastics, which can be difficult to identify because they're so small. Combining data collected at sea and on the ground can tell a story of how plastics move from one place to another and impact the communities where they land.

David Boudinot and Daniel Brendle-Moczuk

David and Daniel are both librarians at the University of Victoria in BC, Canada, and also plastic pellet researchers with the Surfrider Foundation of Vancouver Island. Several years ago, they started finding industrial plastic pellets on beaches around Victoria and began documenting the pollution after realizing that no local data on the issue existed. From a 10 L sample of beach containing visible pellets, David and Daniel sifted and hand-picked the microplastics amidst sand and woody debris. As they continued to find plastic pellets on beaches throughout Vancouver Island and wondered where the pellets were coming from, they had an idea: look at the winds.

David and Daniel observed that beaches with southeastern exposures had the highest concentrations of plastic pellets as winds from winter storms would push debris up on the shore. No facilities were manufacturing these pellets locally on Vancouver Island, so David and Daniel turned their attention to the Lower Mainland of BC, on the banks of the Fraser River. There, they started visiting plastic production facilities and saw pellets spilled throughout the parking lots. The pellets were washing down uncovered storm drains, ending up in the river, and making their way out to sea.

The researchers proposed a simple solution of requiring these plastic production facilities to install storm drain covers in their lots. But, this leaves an issue of who enforces the rules. Working with the Surfrider Foundation, David and Daniel are continually collecting and sharing their data on the problem, sharing information with the public, and working to bring accountability to the polluting industries. You can see their story in this short film by Michelle Munkittrick: S.O.S. / Surfrider Foundation Investigates Plastic Pellet Spills In The Fraser River.

Some ongoing questions and challenges discussed on the call:

  • Tracing the sources of plastic pellets: What are some of the challenges of tracing industrial plastic pellets back to their source?
    • Pellets that have been in the environment for some time will have weathered and degraded, potentially changing their chemical fingerprint.
  • Predicting where you'll find plastic pellets: Can sediment movement models effectively predict where microplastics debris will build up? Do certain areas accumulate microplastics like they can accumulate oil?
    • Fine-grained, clay sediments will accumulate microplastics more than rocky areas.
    • For plastic pellets, surface currents and wind and wave exposure on the beach will also influence where pellets build up. Wind Roses, which are diagrams showing typical wind speed and direction at a location, can help locate beaches that are likely to accumulate plastic debris. Iowa State University has a site where you can generate wind roses in North America.
  • What are the federal reporting requirements for spills of microplastics like plastic pellets?
  • What simple steps can industries take to avoid plastic pellet spills?
    • Double- or triple-bag the plastic pellets?
  • How can we encourage people to explore and report areas where plastic pellets aren't currently found, in preparation for future spills or drifts?


Definitely on question number 3, the US Coast Guard has no "Chris Code" or "NCC" for reports of "pellet"s.

Many reports we do see are associated with required reports on rail accidents, rather than a spill per se.

So I'm unsure if there's a specific threshold amount that is required, so the US Coast Guard reports we do see, like here, I feel we are lucky that the worker felt it important enough to mention a weight, which I am sure he just guesstimated :

Source: Click here 1193901 Date/Time: 2017 October 21 / 10:15 am Lat/Lng: 29.97888/-90.04507 Tags: ['NRC', 'release', 'LABB']

Report Details NRC Report ID: 1193901 Incident Time: 2017-10-21 10:15:00 Nearest City: New Orleans, LA Location: 2101 ST. FERDINAND ST. Incident Type: FIXED Material: PLASTIC PELLETS Medium Affected: BALLAST Suspected Responsible Party: SkyTruth Analysis Lat/Long: 29.978877, -90.045071 (Approximated from street_address) Report Description THE RP IS REPORTING A RELEASE OF PLASTIC PELLETS, SOURCE AND CAUSE ARE CURRENTLY UNDETERMINED. RP STATED THE PRODUCT WAS DISCOVERED ON THE BALLAST IN A RAILYARD. **ESTIMATED VOLUME IS 150 POUNDS

"pellets" seems to be the corporate and regulatory name for "nurdles."

150 pounds of pellets is about three bags, or over a 300,000 pellets, for sure

Thanks for the answer on that one, @eustatic

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