The lentil-sized pellets known as “nurdles” are used as a raw material by industry to make new plastic products.
But searches of 279 shorelines in spots ranging from Shetland to the Scilly Isles have revealed 205 of the sites scoured (73 per cent) had the industrial pellets on them.
They include several sites in Yorkshire. In Fraisthope on the Yorkshire coast two hunters found between 30 and 50 in 45 minutes. In Whitby an undisclosed number of hunters found 50 to 100 in 30 minutes.
And further inland in Castleford in West Yorkshire, 1,000 were found in 30 minutes on the banks of the River Calder.
The largest number recorded in the Great Winter Nurdle Hunt weekend in early February were found at Widemouth Bay, Cornwall, where 33 volunteers from the Widemouth Task Force collected around 127,500 pellets on a 100-metre stretch of beach.
Hundreds or even thousands of the tiny pellets were spotted by volunteers over a short period of time in locations from Porth Neigwl, Wales, to the shoreline in front of the dunes at Seaton, Hartlepool, and after storms on the Isle of Wight.
Overall, more than 600 volunteers took part in the Great Winter Nurdle Hunt organised by Scottish environmental charity Fidra in collaboration with the Environmental Investigation Agency, Fauna & Flora International, Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage.
The small, lightweight nurdles can escape into the environment throughout their manufacture, transport or use, spilt into rivers and oceans or getting into drains where they are washed out to sea, with billions lost in the UK each year.
They are one of the main sources of “primary microplastics” –small pieces of plastic which have not come from larger items broken down into little bits – in European seas and can cause damage to wildlife, such as birds and fish which eat them.
Experts warn they can also soak up chemical pollutants from their surroundings and then release the toxins into the creatures that eat them. Results from the hunt, which was backed by local community groups and charities, will be fed into the Government’s consultation on microplastics, looking at ways of tackling the problem.
Madeleine Berg, projects officer at Fidra, said she was delighted so many nurdle hunters braved the winter weather to take part.
“The information we’ve gathered will be vital to show the UK Government that pellets are found on beaches all around the UK and, importantly, that so many people care about the issue.
“Simple precautionary measures can help spillages and ensure nurdles don’t end up in our environment. We are asking the UK Government to ensure best practice is in place along the full plastic supply chain, and any further nurdle pollution is stopped.”
Fidra has been working with the UK plastics industry since 2012 to try to promote best practice to end further pellet pollution.
People can visit Fidra’s interactive map at: http://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/take-part/nurdle-map.html.