Nurdles in Nipigon Bay: Local Microplastics Concerns

Every Tuesday, we focus on Superior Environment stories. This article is part of a month-long focus on microplastics and their impact. Join us on May 3rd, 7pm-9pm at the Lake Helen Community Hall for an information session and discussion on microplastics issues. Click here for meeting details.

What’s a nurdle? Glad you asked.

Nurdles are a pre-production plastic pellet about 1 to 5mm in diameter, and they’re on the North Shore’s doorstep.

The InfoSuperior Team learned of nurdles washing up on Lake Superior’s North Shore¬† from a Nipigon Bay resident, Chuck Hutterli. He contacted our office at Lakehead University with pictures from a recent cleanup he had done on the beach in front of his home. Hutterli and his wife Danielle live some 45 minutes outside of Nipigon, residing directly on Lake Superior’s North Shore.

After a recent storm, Hutterli invited us to see the nurdles for ourselves. When we showed up, we could see sizeable groups of the microplastics washed up on a stretch of shoreline about a kilometre in length. [wds id=”4″]

Hutterli says the beads are coming from a train derailment 8 years ago. In January 2008, a CP Rail train was derailed around Rossport and two of the boxcars slid directly into Lake Superior.

This derailment is believed to be the source of the beads. Reporters with and Northern Hoot reported last year that they confirmed this with MOECC representatives.

Hutterli told us the nurdles wash up on shore consistently, showing up in droves after large storms pass through the region. He spends days cleaning them up, sometimes spending up to 10 hours sifting through sand and lake debris armed with only an innovative, home-made aluminum sifting shovel and garbage bags.

He’s not alone in his effort, though. Considering the enormous scope of the issue, he says CP Rail “has done a reasonably good job” with clean up. CP Rail representatives have cited figures of up to 2 million dollars spent on clean up to date. The company conducted most of the clean up in 2008 in response to the incident, and continues to respond to calls for clean up, including a recent remedial action on April 4th, 2016.

“They took 65 bags, about 35 pounds each [on April 4th],” says Hutterli. “But we had a storm after that, and [the beads] are right back here again.”

One of Hutterli's cats strolls among the nurdles.
One of Hutterli’s cats strolls among the nurdles.

While he appreciates CP Rail’s efforts, he admits he is still frustrated after seeing the nurdles continuously wash up on shore. It’s hard to keep up, especially after a storm. “When we get these [beads] in wind rows, they’re fairly easy to pick up,” he says. “But if a week or two passes and people are walking on them, they get disturbed. They become even more difficult to pick up.”

“I’d like to know where they’re vectoring in from,” he says.

He’s not alone in wondering. People along the North Shore have been puzzling over the pellets for years. Hutterli tells us they’ve shown up in Sault Ste. Marie, Pancake Bay, and Rossport. Last fall, Northern Hoot profiled similar concerns by Jeremy Frech, a kayaker who found the pellets on six beaches between Sault Ste. Marie, ON and Wawa, ON, all consistent in colour and size. They also spoke with Dr. Patricia Corcoran, Associate Professor with the Department of Earth Sciences at Western University, who has been studying the beads and their source since 2009.

In August 2015, a reporter from spoke to Kate Jordan, a Ministry of Environment and Climate Change rep, about potential impacts on wildlife since the accident. Jordan said that “Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry fish sampling has not turned up any accumulations of the beads in Lake Superior fish, nor of damage to birds or bird habitat.”

Hutterli is part of an burgeoning environmental group in Nipigon, and the nurdles are a topic that will be tabled at their first meeting. The group aims to share existing knowledge about the nurdles, engage in productive discussion about their impact, and explore collaborative solutions for clean up efforts going forward.

Anyone is welcome to the meeting. It will be held at 7pm on May 3rd, at Lake Helen Community Centre, just outside of Nipigon. Admission is free, and light refreshments will be served. If you can’t attend, join the meeting via livestream¬† at



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