Andrew Wunderley crouches in the sand to pick up a milky white sphere. He pinches the lentil-size orb between his thumb and forefinger. It nearly pops out of his grip. The little pellet is made of brand-new plastic and has all the wondrous qualities of the material—light, smooth, and virtually forever-lasting. Many more are scattered in the high-tide line of the wide, windswept beach, the pride of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, a barrier island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. He drops the pellet into a glass jar and picks up another, then another.
Before plastic is formed into forks or garbage bags or iPhone cases, it is born into the world as these orbs. The plastics industry calls them pre-production pellets, or sometimes just resins. Everyone else calls them “nurdles.”
For the past few years Charleston has been transforming into a major plastics export hub. The city is a middle step in the material’s supply chain: Companies receive train cars of nurdles from states like Texas that they then load onto container ships and send overseas.
The challenge is hardly confined to South Carolina; nurdles are turning up in waterways and on beaches all over the world. What’s more, the tiny pellets are just one symptom of a growing trend: larger volumes of cheap plastic being manufactured faster than ever.
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