What is a nurdle, you ask? Is it the latest variation on the popular New York Times puzzle, Wordle? No, not quite. Nurdles are the tiny little petroleum-based building blocks of the plastics industry. And they are literally everywhere. This week on Sea Change Radio, we dig into the archives and talk to Neel Dhanesha of Vox to learn about the role nurdles play in the half-trillion dollar global plastics industry and why they are a big problem for the environment. Then, we hear about a small, innovative company that is recycling all sorts of plastics and turning them into gravel. We speak to the founder and CEO, Sebastián Sajoux, about the technology and mission of his company, Arqlite.
00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:22 Neel Dhanesha – There are best practices that people have come up with that could stop these nurdles from getting into the environment you know, and the problem is that none of the plastic companies have any incentive to clean them.
00:35 Narrator – What is a nurdle, you ask? Is it the latest variation on the popular New York Times puzzle, Wordle? No, not quite. Nurdles are the tiny little petroleum-based building blocks of the plastics industry. And they are literally everywhere. This week on Sea Change Radio, we dig into the archives and talk to Neel Dhanesha of Vox to learn about the role nurdles play in the half-trillion dollar global plastics industry and why they are a big problem for the environment. Then, we hear about a small, innovative company that is recycling all sorts of plastics and turning them into gravel. We speak to the founder and CEO, Nurdle about the technology and mission of his company, Arqlite.
01:41 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Neel Dhanesha. He is a tech and climate reporter for Vox. Neel, welcome to Sea Change Radio. Neel, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
01:50 Neel Dhanesha – Thanks for having me.
01:51 Alex Wise – So you wrote a piece couple weeks ago, May 5th, that came out in Vox on nurdles and I had never heard this term before, but I’m sure I’ve seen them and I’m sure they’re in my life, as we speak. They’re everywhere. So first, what is a nurdle?
02:08 Neel Dhanesha – So a nurdle is a lentil-sized piece of pre-production plastic. It’s just usually this little white orb that’s produced in the trillions every year by petrochemical companies around the world. And then they’re used as essentially the building block of all plastic products. So they are melted down at factories and then put into casts or molds and that will pop, you know, a water bottle or a steering wheel, or a sewage pipe.
02:41 Alex Wise – And the name sounds like somebody just made it up like a widget. But do you have any etymology on the word nurdle? How long has this term been around?
02:52 Neel Dhanesha – That is a great question everyone I asked is being kind of confused by this. So Nurdle is not the proper name for these things. The real name for these things are preproduction plastic pallets, or resins is what the petrochemical industry calls them. But the word nurdle just seems to have come out of nowhere. When I looked into the into the etymology, one of the possible sources. Is the wave shaped gob toothpaste you see on oral care packaging? Colgate and GlaxoSmithKline actually went to court over this a few years ago. That was the word that they used for that little piece of toothpaste on packaging.
03:31 Alex Wise – They didn’t want to call it a thingamabob.
03:34 Neel Dhanesha – Yeah, exactly so they called it a nurdle and somehow that sound made its way over to these plastic pellets. And when you look at them, you can sort of see why they’re called nurdles. They’re like they’re weird little objects that you know you would sort of make up a nonsense word for because you don’t really know what else to call it, and I guess that’s sort of how it’s stuck.
04:00 Alex Wise – All right, so let’s talk about the dark side of these nurdles. They’re produced in the trillions, as you mentioned, and you would think that these beaded forms are fairly easy to transport and keep from seeping into the environment because they would just be used on an industrial level, to like meltdown as you mentioned, but that’s not the case. They really have kind of inserted themselves into far more flora and fauna than I’m sure their manufacturers intended.
04:26 Neel Dhanesha – That’s right, nurdles are escaping from the production process constantly and estimated, I believe, it’s 200,000 metric tons of nurdles are estimated or escaped into the environment every year. That adds up to about 10 trillion nurdles because they’re so light. There are only about 20 milligrams and like you said, manufacturers never intended for them to be in the environment. That’s not what they’re what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to end up at a factory somewhere, but manufacturers also don’t seem to care enough to stop them from getting into waterways, which is usually how they get into the environment. You know they’re spilling out in all kinds of ways. They could be spilling out of bags in transit. They could be falling out of rail cars out of shipping containers. They’re getting out there all the time.
05:19 Alex Wise – So we should mention that they’re made by petrochemicals. Why don’t you explain the building blocks of these nurdles, the building blocks themselves.
05:27 Neel Dhanesha – Yes, so the basic way that they’re made is that a company will take oil or natural gas and through a process called cracking, they’ll eventually turn it into something like ethylene, which you know they then will. Turn into a long spaghetti like tube of plastic which then they chop into thousands of tiny little pieces which turn into nurdles, and so all of these things are, you know, oil and gas byproducts which eventually, into the plastic products used every day.
06:10 Alex Wise – And are there any gradations of nurdles in terms of, when you mentioned drink bottles, you hear about plastics that are BPA free or something like that? Are there BPA free nurdles for example?
06:23 Neel Dhanesha – Yes, so you know all those things that you hear whether BPA free or BPH free, that’s dependent upon the composition of the nurdles themselves. Right, so all these nurdles come in, they’re made of different kinds of polymers, so they all look the same, but the actual composition of them can vary. You know, per instance or per manufacturer, so definitely there are different kinds of nurdles. If you want to get down into the nitty gritty of it, and one of my sources when I was reporting on this story actually analyzes different kinds of nurdles. He finds in the environment to see what they’re made of, and he’s trying to build a database of all these different kinds of nurdles so he’s been seeing these variations on the regular.
07:03 Alex Wise – And how do they differ from other microplastics notably like these microbeads that we heard a lot about being banned in? I think they were in shampoos and things like that back in the day.
00:07:14 Neel Dhanesha – – Yeah, that’s a good question, so I guess to begin with, microbeads are sort of, you know, they are. At the end, they probably made out of nurdles or something like them, but nurdles themselves from the beginning when their manufacturer, they are microplastics, because they’re less than 5 millimeters in diameter, and so to begin with there actually the second largest source of microplastics but especially, even despite like the nature of their existence, just from the beginning, they’re microplastics.
07:44 Alex Wise – So what’s the number one source of microplastics pollution? Is it these degraded, larger plastics?
07:51 Neel Dhanesha – The number one source of microplastics is actually tire dust, and that’s a whole other story. Which I did not get into in my story, but it’s definitely interesting. And then nurdles are the second largest source of microplastics, and when I say that the second largest source, part of it, is because so many of them are getting into the environment, but also because they do breakdown themselves over time, so they’re already small, and so they’re already microplastics, and then they breakdown even further. And they turn into even smaller piece of plastic that then, you know, make their way into things like our bloodstream. I think it’s important to remember that you know nurdles are all pre-production materials, most microplastics that we see nowadays are the result of consumer or many, many microplastics, I should say rather, are there’s also consumer materials or post production materials that have been, you know, being improperly disposed of and then broken down so you know I’m a water bottle, for example, could break down into smaller microplastics overtime. But this is that plastic before turns into that plastic, if that makes sense.
09:36 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Neel Dhanesha. He is a tech and climate reporter for Vox. So Neel, you were talking about how these nurdles these building blocks of the microplastic world or of the plastic world, how they begin as microplastics but they don’t degrade, they’re just there in the form that they were produced, and then they kind of escape from the manufacturing process. To me that that would signal that there’s more hope on the nurdle front that we can kind of harness this pollutant easier than some of the plastics that degrade. Is that an overly optimistic viewpoint, or is that realistic?
10:17 Neel Dhanesha – No, I think that’s totally realistic. I mean, you know at the end of the day the reason these things are escaping is because of, you know, gaps in the manufacturing process, right? Like and it’s always through really mundane little ways. You know they’re slipping around railcars. They’re falling out of cracks, literally. They’re falling out of cracks, or they’re like, you know, falling into drains somewhere at a factory. And there are best practices that people have come up with that could stop these nurdles from getting into the environment, you know. And the problem is that none of the plastic companies have any incentive to clean them up because it’s just cheaper to let them keep spilling than to install the barriers or the fixes that would need to be installed to stop. Them from leaking into the environment in the first place.
10:59 Alex Wise – What are some of the examples of better practices that could stop them from leaking?
11:04 Neel Dhanesha – I mean, these are so. Like I said, these are so mundane. So for example nurdles are blown into railcars using these pneumatic hose. And when they’re not properly attached to the rail car that can spill out around the edges of the hoses, and so one fix, just put a tray under the railcars loading area. That would catch the nurdles as they fall off, and then you can, you know, reuse those nurdles into the next loading of the railcar. Instead of letting them spill onto the ground and then getting washed away or blown away.
11:35 Alex Wise – So it’s just a toaster tray, basically under the railcar…
11:39 Neel Dhanesha – Yeah, something as simple as that. I mean, I guess it would be a large tray, but you know it’s a tray at the end of the day. Or you could put you know a mesh grill on a drain that would stay. Up the nerves from getting through and then someone would have to come through and empty the grill every now and then. But you know, it’s just a simple little fix here and there. Or the bags that are used to transport nurdles during shipping could be tough and so that they don’t split apart as easily so that you know the nurdles won’t escape.
12:05 Alex Wise – So you mentioned this 2020 New Orleans spill that you were investigating, Neel. What other major nurdle incidents have there been in terms of spills around the globe?
12:16 Neel Dhanesha – Yeah, I mean, last year in 2021 there was a major spill off the coast of tree Lanka when a tanker carrying millions or billions. It’s still kind of unknown these nurdles sank off the coast of Sri Lanka and it caused what the United Nations called the biggest plastic spill in history. And you know, if you look at the pictures from this spill, you just see these beaches coated in white nurdles and these really striking photos of people trying to clean them up and animals crawling across them and fish filled with nurdles and it kind of highlights how messy this whole thing is, they’re just so hard to clean up. And also there’s no control over these, whether internationally or locally in the United States. These things have gone entirely unregulated and no one knows who’s supposed to clean them up or has any control over stopping them from spilling in the first place.
13:15 Alex Wise – Neel Dhanesha, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
13:19 Neel Dhanesha – Thanks so much, Alex.
13:35 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by the founder and CEO of Arqlite. Nurdle. Sebastián, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
13:43 Sebastián Sajoux – Hey Alex, thank you very much. Thanks for having me here.
13:47 Alex Wise – So we’ll get into the technology in a second, Sebastián, but first, what’s the mission of Arqlite?
13:53 Sebastián Sajoux – Well, our mission is to tackle plastic pollution. So we work on developing technologies to to achieve this. And we do it by partnering with bigger organizations, by industry leaders, but also with a society. I don’t know if you’re aware, but every time you drop a piece of plastic on the beam, half of that it’s still going to end up in a landfill or incineration on the worst case, you know, in the water Corps and contaminating the, the environment. So that 50% of plastics that no one wants, that’s our raw material. And our first product that it’s the one we’re producing here in California, it’s a smart gravel that replaces mineral and gravel in a variety of applications, right? We count on everyone, every everyone going out there and buying a bag of artists, smart gravel is automatically deviating all those pounds of plastics from the environment.
14:59 Alex Wise – And you have kind of a multi stage rollout plan for it. Why don’t you kind of explain? Right now you you’re going to be available for smaller consumer purchases, but it’s going to be ramping up to bigger construction scale soon, right?
15:14 Sebastián Sajoux – Yeah, totally. So when we started working on this solution, we were aiming for a large scale solution for a large scale problem. That’s why we got this idea of making gravel right so gravel has a great variety of applications and very different markets. from let’s say, starting from the from the bigger markets, you have concrete companies are interested in making light concrete, so they replace a mirror and gravel in the concrete mix by our gravel to get lighter materials and also the better insulated capacity of plastics in there, while also being able to offer green concrete to their customers. Then you have like midsize markets, like the for example, hydroponic growers that are using our gravel as a replacement of expanded clay, because it’s a great growth media for that for those systems. And then we also offer it on smaller bags or retail. It’s already on the big box retailers for small home gardening projects for also small hydroponics projects and also small contractors using the gravel. So you’ll see online on the big retailers and you can also see that you’d maybe you know on a on a big sandbox concrete practices on the road.
16:42 Alex Wise – Now let’s dive into the process of upcycling that Arqlite has developed, why don’t you kind of walk us through how it might work from somebody using a plastic container that gets rejected by their waste management company and how it might get into your company’s hands and how you utilize it.
17:05 Sebastián Sajoux – Yeah, sure. So we get the plastics from two main we have like two main streams one is both industrial That is manufacturers of different types of plastics that are in the, that there are non recyclable. And for that I could say, potato chips, bags, I don’t know cookies wrappers for, for energy bars, all those films that we see on on the products that we eat, for example every day, because they are they have several layers of different plastics that protect the you know the product for a longer time. So, they were really born on recyclable. So the more that say, even environmentally aware companies manufacturing these materials, they don’t want to send all this crap on the left over to a landfill, so they send it to us. And same thing happens on the post consumer side where we partner with MERS and with other recyclers that are picking the good plastics that have a commodity value, and then they have no other toys and sending those plastics to to the other the remaining plastics to to a landfill, right. So we do offer that as a service. So it’s pretty, pretty special, because we have a double revenue model where we charge for the solution. And we compete again, against a landfill. And we offer a price competitive option and a sustainable option at the end of the day. Once we just have to give you a general idea of what happens with those classes. When we when they get here. we classify them, we grind all the plastic, we clean them, we remove any leftovers of organics or any other contaminants that they may have. And then we heat them keep them really high temperatures to remove any other bacteria. So we sterilize the plastic. And at the end of the day, at the end of the process, you get this growl, which is sterilized and that assures that it will be long lasting, that you won’t Leach anything that it won’t break down into microplastics. And of course it is not easy with it took us five years to develop the technology. But now Yeah, we can tell that we turn trash into a long lasting sustainable product.
19:30 Alex Wise – And in terms of application is it is this gravel different than other gravel like can it not be used on in highways etc
19:39 Sebastián Sajoux – Well, the main difference is there are two main difference one is weight, right? This is very, very light. So compared to mineral gravel that is really heavy, we can offer that benefit. And that’s of course useful. If you’re looking for that if you want to do for example, like concrete, then you want to replace mineral gravel with our gravel. But if you are looking for, for example compressive strength, then you want to go for mineral gravel standard grow because there’s nothing you know, harder than that. So we offer flexibility, which is very much appreciated in civil engineering applications, lightweight and great insulation. So depending on the use you want to do for it, then for example, there’s fuel, just buying the gravel because as going to the store, grabbing, you know, a 50 liter or a big bag of gravel, it’s very heavy, it’s very difficult to transport to handle anyone to install, it’s dirty. And when you buy our smart gravel, you can carry a couple of bags and BOC three times lighter, it’s clean, and at the end of the day you’re helping the environment. So that’s kind of depending on on what you’re doing, how you will be able to benefit from it.
21:02 Alex Wise – And in terms of procuring the plastics, you mentioned how you can get like these films that might get thrown away otherwise how do you compete with like the landfills for these products?
21:23 Sebastián Sajoux – Well, first of all, in terms of economics, we charge less than a landfill. So that’s one of the main difference between our technologies and other technologies out there were very cost efficient, so doesn’t mean driver and also companies sending those plastics us besides maybe saving a penny they get access to incentives to subsidies or you know tax credits or other benefits that are associated with their with their industry because they are improving their sustainability metrics. So it’s, it’s a win, however you look at it.
22:11 (Music Break)
22:59 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Sebastián Sajoux. He is the founder and CEO of Arqlite, people can go to Arqlite.com, to check it out. So the gravel itself can be used for what exactly is this something that people would put into their gardens or their driveways or what?
23:22 Sebastián Sajoux – Well just to mention a couple of applications when, if let’s say you you’re growing hydroponics with a hydroponic system, you use expanded clay as a growth media. So the plants will grab from the expanded clay and they will grow feeding from the water that runs through that expanded clay. If you replace that expanded clay, which is a traditional system with our gravel, then you’ll get a clean system because these gravel hours our gravel won’t break down into smaller parts are wandering and dust keeping all the systems clean. And on top of that, because it’s not porous. If you ever get like some type of pest in the in the water, you just remove it, wash it, and you can reuse it many times compared to expanded clay where you will need to just toss all the expanded clay and buy a new batch and install it again. So that’s for example hydroponics. And then home gardening, the most traditional use is to help avoid root rot, which is something very common among people that love gardening. And so you want if you set a layer of smart gravel at the bottom of your pots, then you will allow the water to drain more efficiently out of the pot and your plants will grow bigger and healthier. So that’s that’s for the most common home applications. reflection is shows with crackpots.
24:48 Alex Wise – So Sebastián, you were mentioning how you have different product offerings at a different scale level on the horizon? Are there any plans for your company to expand the range of plastics that can be recycled?
25:04 Sebastián Sajoux – So the crazy thing here is that we are already resizing every type of plastic. So that the the magic of the technologies that we can mix everything together and turn that into a new plastic polymer that we can mold into different things. So maybe the challenge is not adding new plastics, but adding new products to the to the products that we are offering. So because we’re already related in and working a lot with the construction industry, with landscapers in and architects and urban developers, we’re still we’re really working on new product for for those categories, like other fibers to be used for concrete blocks for emergency housing, and ready mix concrete. So you can make a light and eco friendly ready mix at home. So there are other things that we’re working in partnership with, with bigger companies that are leaders in the market.
26:08 Alex Wise – And can you kind of give us a snapshot of the competitive landscape? You have your own technology, but there are other companies that take plastic and use it for industrial purposes. Do you work directly with the waste management company or not?
26:25 Sebastián Sajoux – Well, yes, we work with them because the process begins with a with an analysis of the plastics available, the amount of plastic they have, how contaminated they are. So we do tailor a solution for them, and then work on a long term agreement so we can both get benefited from the relationship. And I would say that at this point, we are the only ones taking these unrecyclable or let’s say hard to recycle plastics and processing them at a rate of one ton per hour. And turning that into an efficient product for a massive market. So we have covered all the all the angles, because we have a good technology, we have a market that doesn’t generate any bottleneck for the product, which is sometimes something that affects great ideas, because then the market is maybe not ready for the final product, resulting of a great technology. And the other thing would be the low cost, because all other technologies out there, which are great, like really, really amazing, like the polymer ice and the plastics and, and other things like that, then they are still in a lab scale. And they’re very, very expensive. So it’s still you know, they’re a little bit green yet. And they are where we were five years ago when we started.
27:50 Alex Wise – He’s the CEO and founder of Arqlite and people can go to Arqlite.com to learn more. Sebastián Sajoux. Sebastián, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:01 Sebastián Sajoux – Thanks to you, Alex. It was a pleasure.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Hot 8 Brass Band, Jefferson Airplane and Bob Dylan. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.