A spill of plastic pellets has washed up on at least a mile of Sullivan's Island beach. David Creech/Provided

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — The plastic pellets resemble tiny fish eggs, and they're everywhere along the high water line at the beach.

David Creech walked for a mile, staggered by the spread. People with litter bags who were walking around him were shocked, too, he said.

"It's beyond anything you can do," Creech said about the spill he found Friday. "I'm sure whatever was on the beach is just a small representation of what's in the water."


Nurdles are about the size of fish eggs and might be mistaken by marine creatures as food. David Creech/Provided

The pellets are nurdles, the raw material used to make virtually every commercial plastic item in the market. They are a toxic petroleum product that can poison or clog the guts of marine animals.

They also are the size of small beads and, in most cases, are milky white.

Creech found them along the beach from the south side of the island from Charleston Harbor going north past the island's lighthouse, but more concentrated toward the harbor side, he said.

The Coast Guard checked out the spill Friday.

"We are working closely with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to identify both the source and the reason it was washing ashore," said Coast Guard Lt. Jg. Phillip Vanderweitt.

No incidents of the pellets showing up elsewhere on Charleston beaches were reported. 

Science Alert, an international publisher of peer-reviewed research, said as much as 53 billion nurdles are released annually in the United Kingdom alone from the plastic industry. That's enough to make 88 million plastic bottles.

"Mismanagement of these little pellets during transport and processing leads to billions being unintentionally released into rivers and oceans through effluent pipes, blown from land or industrial spillage," the report said.

The nurdles can be so noxious that people cleaning them up are advised to wear gloves.

The Port of Charleston last year exported more than 32,000 cargo containers of the pellets — a roughly 7 percent of the U.S. market share. Exports through the first four months of this year are up 30 percent over the same period in 2018.

Port officials expect that volume to keep increasing.

At least three companies that produce the nurdles have moved to the Charleston port recently because of congestion in the Gulf of Mexico ports where they have operated, The Post and Courier has reported.

John Weinstein, a physiology professor at The Citadel, has been overseeing research into just how much microplastics and tire particles are accumulating in oysters in South Carolina. His students have sampled Sullivan's Island, Folly Beach and Charleston Harbor.

"We have never come across nurdles," he said. "This is new."

But there are beaches in the Gulf of Mexico where nurdles are the most common kind of microplastic found, he said.

Andrew Wunderley, the Charleston Waterkeeper, said he has seen a few nurdles during litter cleanups on Folly Beach and on Laurel Island off the Cooper River near the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

The spill on Sullivan's Island "is not insignificant, but it's not catastrophic," he said.

In contrast, he's seen photos of spills in Asia that covered the beach like snow and people tried to clean up with shovels.

"The bigger picture for us is, you have a community that has made moves to combat plastic pollution and now you have this," Wunderley said. "We certainly welcome the plastic business in the community. But you have to respect the community and the waterway."

As for the Sullivan's mess, he said, "there's not a lot you can do once it's dispersed."

David Wren contributed to this report.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.