Posted at 05:11 PM ET, 08/06/2012

Hong Kong’s plastic pellet problem

Snow-capped shorelines don’t exactly scream out Hong Kong in the summertime.

But after weathering the 140 mph winds of Typhoon Vincete, the worst storm in 13 years, locals have seen their favorite weekend beaches transform into white plastic landfills.


A volunteer collects plastic pellets washed up on a bank of Lamma Island during a cleanup operation in Hong Kong on Sunday. (Kin Cheung - AP)

During July’s typhoon, a vessel carrying sacks of plastic pellets off the coast of Hong Kong was rocked by the category 4 hurricane winds, jettisoning some 150 tons of snow-like plastic confetti into the surrounding water.

Two weeks later, an estimated several hundred volunteers continue clean-up efforts at 10 of Hong Kong’s beaches, sifting through fine sand for the hundreds of millions of plastic pellets that continue to wash up on shores across the region.

A video posted by Chris Chow Photography shows locals panning the ocean water for the pellets, also know as nurdles, in an effort to clean up a beach.

Environmental groups in Hong Kong say they’re concerned the spilled plastic may sop up pollutants from the nearby waterways and then be eaten by fish. Contaminated fish would, in turn, pose a danger to consumers.

“[The pellets] look remarkably like fish eggs, which is the biggest problem for most of the marine species around in the waters here and even for the seabirds,” said Gary Stokes of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society in self-produced video.


The white plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, on Lamma Island in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung - AP)

The plastic pellets, also called nurdles, look like tiny beads, and are used to make many plastic items including jars, films and tubes.

Rare marine animals, such as the Chinese white dolphin, may also be at risk of contamination via the pellets, the Associated Press reported.

This video from the Sea Shepard Conservation Society shows dead fish sprawled on the shore, found with little white plastic beads in their stomachs. As of this week, just half of all the pellets have been recovered.

Plastic Disaster - Hong Kong from Gary Stokes on Vimeo.

With environmental concerns looming, the Special Administrative Region’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, sought to ease such trepidations on Monday, saying the plastic pellets posed little risk to Hong Kong’s lucrative fishing industry, which hauled more than $2 billion in marine life from the surrounding waters in 2010.

“The pellets are not dangerous materials. Their risks to water quality, marine lives, fish and food safety are low and so there is no need to panic,” she told the South China Morning Post, a English-language paper in Hong Kong.

However, local marine fish farmers, who produce some 1,500 tons of food annually, have seen a change in fish behavior sicne the spill. They’ve reportedly witnessed a drop in their fishes’ appetite since the typhoon, Hong Kong’s food and health secretary, Ko Wing-man said.

“That’s not a surprise, because by consuming these pellets, fish can either become full or have their digestive systems obstructed,” said Jackie Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana.

Most toxins in the ocean are hydrophobic, Savitz added, and therefore gravitate to floating debris like plastic. And so by eating these pellets, the fish are not only ingesting potentially harmful plastic, but also the chemicals the plastics have absorbed.

“Fish are sponges for chemicals in the ocean,” Savitz said. “These plastic pellets can be a delivery mechanismof toxic chemicals from the sea to our plates.”

While the true impact on marine life remains to be seen, government officials and environmentalists can agree on one fact: the cleanup effort will take months and hundreds of man hours.


Plastic bags containing plastic pellets collected by volunteers are piled up during a cleanup operation on a bank of Lamma Island in Hong Kong on Sunday. (Kin Cheung - AP)

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By Benjamin Gottlieb  |  05:11 PM ET, 08/06/2012

Tags:  World

 
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