Rossport Beach Cleanup…Nurdles Undercurrent

September 15th, 2018 Parks Canada Rossport Beach Cleanup
Participants in Parks Canada’s September 15th beach cleanup at Rossport, Ontario
Back Row (L to R): Kevin Houle (Canadian Pacific Railways), Alexandria Cockerell (LTL Contracting), Chuck Hutterli, Jacqueline Menzies (Parks Canada), Nicole Eckert, Dave Tamblyn (Superior Outfitters), Darrell Makin (Parks Canada)
Front Row (L to R): Petri Bailey (Parks Canada), Megan Goetz (LTL), Sarah Shruiff (Parks Canada). (Photo:

Parks Canada Host

Parks Canada hosted a very successful beach cleanup on September 15th at Rossport, Ontario, as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. The event is held, on the same day, on lakes and oceans around the world. Approximately 30 people participated, many from the Rossport and Gravel River area with additional reinforcements from Schreiber, Nipigon and even Thunder Bay. All manner of debris was collected including plastic containers, glass bottles and broken glass, articles made of metal, and debris from the nearby highway, including coffee cups.

Nurdles Undercurrent

The event was unique in that, in addition to cleaning up a couple kilometers of Rossport’s mainland shoreline, several participants paddled out to a beach on nearby Healey Island where they carried out a cleanup of “nurdles.”  Special thanks to Dave Tamblyn and Superior Outfitters for supplying kayaks and gear for the cleanup and especially for volunteering himself on Healey Island. Special thanks also to Paul Turpin of Discovery Charters for bringing special equipment to Healey Island to facilitate nurdles cleanup and for picking up both collected nurdles and equipment at the conclusion of the event. While the nurdles cleanup was mostly a laborious manual cleanup, special equipment, largely developed by Chuck Hutterli, is extremely helpful, speeding the process. In addition to large quantities of nurdles on Healey Island, nurdles were also observed and collected on the mainland shore, especially in the vicinity of Wardrobe Park where a beach, or spit, stretches out to Nicol Island.

(Discovery Charters is featured in a previous Infosuperior article focused on a fascinating Rossport area dive to the yacht Gunilda, here.)

Nurdles collected at Healey Island, Sept. 15, 2018.
Nurdles collected on Healey Island, September 15th, 2018. Nurdles are extremely difficult to separate from natural debris which accumulates on beaches. (Photo:

What Are Nurdles and Where Did They Come From?

If you’ve been keeping up with Lake Superior news on Infosuperior, you know by now what nurdles are: small white plastic pellets used as the raw material for all manner of articles manufactured from plastic. Nurdles are shipped in hopper cars throughout North America and a single car can contain millions of these microplastics  (as classified under Canadian federal legislation). Nurdles spilled into Nipigon Bay from a derailed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) train car on January 21, 2008. CPR cleaned up the initial spill in February of 2008 and in several subsequent cleanups, spending well over a million dollars in the process. A significant portion of the nurdles were already taken up by the lake immediately following the wreck however, and have continued to be redistributed to Lake Superior beaches in Canada and the United States. CPR was represented at the Parks Canada Cleanup by Jeffrey Peister of their Environmental Affairs Division. CPR also donated specialized cleanup equipment, lunch and metal water bottles for all participants.

Cleanup participants noted their concerns about the nurdles situation with Mr. Peister, who responded that CPR has already implemented several cleanup efforts at considerable cost and would like to continue efforts to act responsibly and ensure effective cleanup going forward.

Nurdles, Healey Island, 2010
Nurdles, Healey Island near Rossport, Ontario, August 17, 2010. (Photo: J. Bailey/

Working Toward Resolution of the Nurdles Situation

Representatives of Lakehead University, Parks Canada and CPR formed a “Lake Superior Nurdles Working Group” in spring, 2018. The group has met several times and is endeavouring to:

  • Develop a common methodology for quantification of nurdles across various beach locations (what is “a lot,”, what are “moderate quantities,” what are “a few”. [currently, two different observers of the same beach might have a wide discrepancy in their description of the same quantity of nurdles.]
  • Carry out a summer, 2019, small boat/kayak/in-person reconnaissance determining presence/absence/concentrations/”hotspots” for nurdles on island and mainland shorelines in the Mountain Bay and Rossport area.
  • Identify cleanup measures and equipment to most effectively address the nurdles situation.
  • Identify additional organizations and area residents to join the nurdles working group. [want to get involved on the committee? – email infosuperior –]
  • Implement cleanup.

In effect, the above objectives endeavour to answer the question, “Are we making progress?”. This is a question that is impossible to answer without a “baseline” as to how many nurdles are out there, in what quantities and in what locations. Nurdles float, and are constantly moving from one Lake Superior beach to another, suspended within Lake Superior’s waters. Future surveys, at set intervals, will likely be necessary to formulate a baseline and determine if progress is being made.

A Lakehead University Geography and Environmental Science student supervised by Dr. Rob Stewart will be writing a thesis involving several of the above objectives and will assist the committee in making effective and scientifically defensible progress. Infosuperior will be reporting on this student’s research in a future article.

The Big Picture

Plastic, including nurdles and other man-made debris on Lake Superior beaches is only a reflection of ourselves as a society. We use a phenomenal amount of plastic. Cleaning up at the tail end of the process (on beaches) is not a sustainable practice. We (you and me) need to cut plastic use dramatically and increase effective waste and recycling efforts. Take your own steps. Make it personal. Move it across society.

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