Tregantle Beach in Cornwall, England is a picturesque location, with the sea, sky, and sun merging to create a beautiful sight. However, on closer inspection, the beach is littered with tiny plastic balls, the size of lentils, known as nurdles. These pellets are used by the plastic industry to manufacture products and are often spilled at industrial facilities, swept into drains, and eventually end up in the ocean. An estimated 11.5 trillion nurdles enter the ocean each year, according to UK charity Fauna & Flora International. The nurdles circulate on ocean currents and often wash up on beaches and other shores. They look like fish eggs and are often consumed by birds and other sea life, which can adversely affect the entire food chain as they absorb toxic pollutants.
Rob Arnold, a 65-year-old environmental activist and artist, is among ten people taking part in a cleanup on Tregantle Beach. Arnold has invented a device made from a plastic basin, a large grid, and a set of tubes that separates plastic waste from natural waste and sand using a filtering and water floating system. He then uses the collected nurdles and other microplastics in his artworks. Jed Louis, wearing a khaki hoodie bearing the name of the local beach cleanup association, says several factors add to the beach’s vulnerability. The beach is particularly polluted due to its geographical location, the sea currents that affect it, and its very open shape. In autumn and winter, the most microplastics are found due to the weather. Storms, thunderstorms, and winds bring them to the surface.
Claire Wallerstein, another volunteer, says the work is like doing archaeology. If you dig in the sand, you’ll find different layers of plastic. Some of the nurdles go to Arnold for his artistic creations while others are used to raise awareness in schools. The rest, which cannot be recycled, end up in the rubbish and are incinerated. After three hours, the volunteers have cleaned just a few square meters of the beach. Arnold looks at his loot, a large tarp filled with nurdles and other microplastics. Once dried and sorted, he can add them to the 20 million nurdles he has collected over six years, which he stores in a friend’s garage.
Arnold’s most notable work using the nurdles is a 1.7-meter sculpture, similar to the Moai statues of Easter Island. The work is on display at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in the coastal town of Falmouth under the title A Lesson from History. Arnold says it’s a metaphor for what humans are doing to the planet Earth. We are polluting our planet, using its resources, and if we destroy it, we have nowhere to go. This is our only home. For his next creation, he wants to mold the tiny plastic pellets into a meteorite headed towards Earth in a nod to the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
After cleaning up the beach and packing his nurdle-filled bags away, Arnold looks disillusioned. He says sometimes he thinks about throwing all his bags of nurdles into the river from a bridge. It would be so shocking that maybe, finally, people would realize the extent of the problem.