City Cast

Should Pittsburgh Worry About Nurdles?

Francesca Dabecco
Francesca Dabecco
Posted on August 1
A barge on the Ohio River. (Ross Lewis / Getty)

The Shell cracker plant on the Ohio River in Beaver County. (Megan Harris / City Cast Pittsburgh)

A nurdle is a tiny plastic pellet — about the size of a lentil — that’s produced at petrochemical plants, like Shell Chemical Appalachia in Beaver County. These small pieces of plastic, used to make everything from car parts to grocery store bags, are the second-largest source of micropollutants in the ocean, according to The Guardian’s “Seascape” series.

For reference, it takes more than a thousand nurdles to make a soda — err, I mean, pop — bottle. According to The Allegheny Front, the local ethane cracker plant is expected to make 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets a year. Many could end up in the Ohio River Valley.

Nurdles are so tiny that they’re often mistaken for fish eggs and pebbles and wildlife can die after accidentally consuming them. The Guardian calls them “rafts” for harmful bacteria.

In 2020, Environmental groups like Allegheny Cleanways and Three Rivers Waterkeeper surveyed the Ohio River for nurdles to establish a baseline in order to measure how much is coming from the plant. Their findings revealed that there were already nurdles in the Ohio River, but by 2022, there was a substantial increase. The organizations determined that the nurdles were coming from Raccoon Creek, an Ohio River tributary about a half-mile downstream from the Shell cracker plant’s main outfall.

While the federal Clean Water Act says that outfalls can’t release solids or garbage, the Department of Environmental Protection has yet to penalize these companies. James Cato, regional organizer for the Mountain Watershed Association, and Evan Clark, waterkeeper for Three Rivers Waterkeeper, wrote about this for TribLIVE:

“DEP’s lack of environmental enforcement here does not bode well for those concerned about the Shell cracker plant just upriver. The plant is the largest plastic producer in the eastern United States — the potential for more plastics pollution in our future is enormous. Local residents deserve to know that they will be held accountable.”

Read more: Learn about how residents and activists are asking Beaver County leaders for stricter oversight over the cracker plant.

Hey Pittsburgh

Want to know what's happening in Pittsburgh? Sign up for our free newsletter, Hey Pittsburgh. Packed with local news, curated event recs, local life hacks, and more, it's your daily toolkit for getting the most out of the city you love.

Pittsburgh, Explained

See All

The latest in Pittsburgh