Nurdles are small plastic pieces about the size of a lentil. They make nearly all of our plastic products but billions of them accidentally end up in the ocean and can harm marine life. They also wash up on our shores. The nurdles in this feature were collected on beaches in Greece. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

Gianmarco Maraviglia learned that little plastic bits called nurdles are troubling marine pollutants. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

For a while, Gianmarco Maraviglia thought the little plastic pellets he saw on beaches may have come from plastic bottles, worn down from years of tumbling in the ocean. But when he was in Greece this year, he started noticing the pellets all over the beaches he was visiting and decided to look into what they really were. He learned that these little plastic bits are called nurdles.

Maraviglia also discovered that nurdles, which don’t seem particularly harmful at first, are actually an extreme marine pollutant. About the size of a lentil, they are used to make a variety of plastic products such as bottles, grocery bags, cups, sunglasses and more. Often, they are produced by melting down recycled plastics.

Because of their small size, nurdles can be hard to contain and can be lost during manufacturing or while in transit. Being lightweight, most float. This makes it easy for nurdles to be washed away by rainwater and into storm drains and eventually the ocean. It is estimated that 230,000 tons of nurdles find their way into the ocean every year.

The round and often translucent nurdles can resemble fish eggs as they bob along in the ocean. This makes them attractive to birds, fish, turtles and other marine life that might mistake them for tasty snacks. Ingesting plastic can cause a variety of problems for these animals. Fish can even absorb the chemicals of the plastic, which allows the nurdles to find their way into our food chain. Nurdles that aren’t eaten can wash up on beaches all over the world, including the beaches in Greece where Maraviglia started collecting them.

Maraviglia says that when it came to telling the story of the nurdles, he wanted to take a different visual approach. He decided to photograph each of the tiny pellets with a macro lens, showing them larger than life. The result gives us an up-close look at the issue. The nurdles look as if they could be natural, like pebbles or even tiny planets. It’s easy to understand why an animal might eat them.

While Maraviglia cannot photograph the estimated 53 billion pellets that find their way to the ocean every year, the quantity that he has found and photographed is striking. Maraviglia believes that this marine pollution is one of the biggest problems of the century.

He says that he is not an activist, but that his job is to inform and alert people to the problem. Maraviglia calls his project “Mermaid Tears,” which is a common name for the nurdles.

“You think, ‘What does it mean?’ ” Maraviglia says. “And you can figure out a mermaid somewhere in the ocean, crying for the pollution.”


Round and often translucent, nurdles can resemble fish eggs as they bob along in the ocean. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

Nurdles are used to make a variety of plastic products such as bottles, grocery bags, cups, sunglasses and more. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

Because of their small size, nurdles can be hard to contain and can be lost while being manufactured or in transit. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

Experts say about 230,000 tons of nurdles find their way into the ocean every year. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

Birds, fish, turtles and other marine life might mistake the tiny plastic pellets for tasty snacks. Ingesting plastic can cause a variety of problems for these animals. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

Nurdles that aren’t eaten by wildlife can wash up on beaches all over the world. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

Gianmarco Maraviglia shot each nurdle with a macro lens, showing them larger than life. The result gives us an up-close look at the issue. Maraviglia believes that this marine pollution is one of the biggest problems of the century. (Gianmarco Maraviglia)

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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