Hong Kong Struggles with Plastic Pellets on Beaches

By Kelvin Chan 7 August 2012

HONG KONG—The cleanup from Hong Kong’s worst typhoon in 13 years could take months, the government said on Monday, after hundreds of millions of plastic pellets washed onto beaches from containers that fell off a ship.

Environmental groups are concerned the pellets will absorb toxins and pollutants and then be eaten by fish that may in turn be eaten by humans. They’re also worried rare marine species such as the Chinese white dolphin could be threatened by the pollutants.

Also known as nurdles, the pellets are used by factories to make plastic products. Authorities say six containers filled with the pellets were lost from a ship in waters south of Hong Kong when it was caught in Typhoon Vicente last month.

Several hundred volunteers at one beach Sunday used trowels, paintbrushes, dustpans and sieves to painstakingly pick up the translucent pellets, which coated the shore.

“It’s a bit overwhelming. It seems like we can’t get rid of them even though there are hundreds of people here,” said Mathis Antony, one of the volunteers on Lamma Island off the western coast of Hong Kong Island. “It looks like it’s going to take a lot more to clean it up.”

The volunteers filled dozens of garbage bags but there were still many pellets left at the end of the day, piled like snow between rocks.

The government said Monday it would deploy additional manpower and contract out work to speed the cleanup, which could still take several months.

The typhoon prompted authorities to raise the storm warning system to its highest level, indicating hurricane-force winds of 118 kilometers (73 miles) an hour or more, for the first time since 1999.

The government said large amounts of pellets have been found at 10 beaches. At some beaches, numerous sacks filled with pellets and bearing the markings of the manufacturer, China Petroleum and Chemical Corp., or Sinopec, have also washed ashore.

About half of the 150 tons of pellets in the containers have been collected so far, the government said, including 50 tons from sacks found at sea and 21 tons that were washed ashore.