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Plastic Pellets Spilled Along Southern California Coast

Local community members and organizations have found thousands of pre-production plastic pellets (or “nurdles”) spilled along the coastal train corridor in Southern California. Now groups are taking action to hold polluters accountable, including an ongoing lawsuit and a push for federal legislation to prevent nurdle pollution across the nation. Learn how you can get involved and help protect our waterways at the coast and upstream from harmful microplastic pellets in this post by Surfrider San Diego Rise Above Plastics volunteer lead, Janis Jones. 

“Have you ever heard of nurdles?” I have posed this question countless times while tabling at events and giving talks across San Diego County. 

“They are pre-production plastic pellets,” I explain while pouring a few out of a jar into the palm of my hand, adding, “Just about everything made out of plastic starts with nurdles. They are melted down and poured into molds to create plastic cutlery, beach toys, milk jugs…you name it!”

Nurdle sifting

Sand sifting for nurdles and other microplastics during an event in Oceanside

I then reveal that I collected the nurdles on display from North County San Diego beaches, emphasizing that "they easily escape during manufacturing and can also be lost when transported in trucks, shipping containers, and freight trains."

Despite sharing this information with people of all ages for years, it hadn’t occurred to me that the nurdles I find might originate from the rail corridor that transects the beach communities that I frequent in Northern San Diego. 


Nurdles picked up during a walk at North Ponto Beach in Carlsbad

A nurdle spill in North County

I mistakenly assumed that state and federal regulations were in place to prevent this type of plastic pollution until I met Clare Swithenbank-Bowman from Trash4Tokens, who informed me about a spill that her son discovered along the railroad tracks in Encinitas. 

Over coffee in late March, Clare and I discussed what she had uncovered and the lawsuit San Diego Coastkeeper and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) initiated in response. We then crossed the street to see the nurdles firsthand, which were scattered everywhere in the dirt parking area running parallel to the railroad tracks.

Nurdles discovered by Clare’s son while fishing at the Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad

On the drive home, still in disbelief, I decided to take a detour to do a quick search for nurdles. I parked downtown near the Carlsbad Village train station and walked along the fence line, making sure not to trespass into the railroad right-of-way. After only a few steps, I was surprised to see nurdles strewn in the landscaping. I continued south as far as I could and found them scattered all along the way. 

Carlsbad nurdles 1JPG

Nurdles found in the landscaping near the old Carlsbad train station

Since late March, our Surfrider chapter has sent numerous emails to both the North County Transit District and BNSF Railway, urging them to conduct a cleanup in the area. I spoke to a consultant who assured me that someone would get back to me, but I have yet to speak to an official BNSF representative. Sadly, nearly three months have passed, and there's still no evidence that remediation has begun in Carlsbad. 

While this incident may not be as substantial as the massive nurdle spills seen in other regions across the United States, such as Texas and Mississippi or globally in places like Spain and Sri Lanka, it's important to recognize the cumulative effect of these relatively smaller spills. When nurdles escape from freight cars in places like Carlsbad and Encinitas, it's reasonable to assume they escape along the entire LOSSAN Rail Corridor and other rail networks across the United States, collectively having a significant environmental impact.

handful of nurdles

Handful of nurdles found along the railroad tracks in Carlsbad

This is just one of the reasons why Surfrider strongly supports the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, introduced by Representatives Mike Levin (CA-49) and Mary Peltola (AK-At Large) in March 2024, and Senator Durbin (IL) in July 2023. If passed, the bill “will require the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a final rule that prohibits certain discharges of plastic pellets and other preproduction plastic into waters of the United States.” 

As Jennifer Savage, Surfrider’s Senior Plastic Pollution Initiative Manager states, it is “a simple, straightforward bill that will close a loophole and hold polluters accountable for the litter they create in our coastal environment."

Help us prevent nurdle spills and hold polluters accountable 

Surfrider needs your help to ensure the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act passes. Please complete the easy-to-use action alert to contact your Member of Congress and urge them to put an end to harmful plastic pellet pollution. 

In the meantime, keep an eye out for nurdles near the train tracks in your area, while staying safely out of the railroad right of way. If you happen to spot any, please report them to Nurdle Patrol

Learn more about the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act

Nurdles on the beach

Nurdles and microplastics on the beach in Carlsbad