First-hand account of the Hong Kong plastic pellets clean up

September 07, 2012

When Tracey Read first saw the initial plastic pellets spill washed up on Hong Kong beaches, it had a familiar look.

"The initial spill looked like snow on several beaches and in quite a few areas the pellets were knee deep," Read, a local cleanup volunteer, told PlasticsToday. "Because Hong Kong is made up of 220 islands it was very difficult to know how bad the spill was." 

About 150 metric tons of plastic pellets were dumped into the sea when Typhoon Vicente hit Hong Kong on July 23.

The pellets, which are also referred to as nurdles, were raw materials designed to make products such as plastic bags, water bottles, and more.

Chinese oil and chemical giant Sinopec manufactured the plastic pellets and set aside $1.28 million for the clean up, and stated they will spend more if necessary. Sinopec did not return a PlasticsToday request for comment. 

During Typhoon Vicente, a container ship lost seven 40-ft containers in the waters south of Hong Kong. Six of the containers contained bags of plastic pellets and one contained glass bottles. Some of the containers were broken causing the plastic pellets to scatter at sea and wash on to nearby beaches.

Volunteers, such as Read, have banded together to try and clean up the beaches. Read said they have been working closely with the government and Sinopec to mobilize volunteers and coordinate cleanup efforts. 

"There was no 'disaster plan' for handling this type of spill so it has needed cooperation from all sides to come up with an effective plan to learn everything we needed to know to contain and manage this," she said.

The volunteers are using all sorts of cleanup tools from hand held sieves, dustpan and brushes, rotating sand/pellet sieves, nets and industrial vacuums. 

"We have been working tirelessly around the clock for much of the last five weeks," she said. "During this time we have seen thousands of volunteers coming out to the beaches to sift through sand and help remove what we can while it is still accessible."

Read said there will be ongoing cleanup efforts for the next few weeks and monitoring and cleaning as needed over the coming months.

While it is difficult to know for sure how much has been retrieved, she said they have estimated they have removed two-third of the pellets, which leaves about 50,000 kg still in the sea and on the beaches. According to some reports, about 60% of pellets have been collected.

However, the beaches experienced another typhoon since the initial one, which covered the shoreline again.

"Luckily we were able to mobilize people quickly to remove the pellets washed out of rocks or onto the beaches," she said. "It is now over five weeks since the pellet spill but every day we are seeing tide lines strewn with pellets. Some days worse than others."

Potential environmental threat

Some of the concern was the potential threat to food and environmental safety. The pellets may absorb toxins and pollutants, which could potentially pass into the food chain when fish swallow the pellets.

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