Hong Kong’s Plastic-Pellet Problem: Its Beaches Are Littered with Millions of Them

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Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Volunteers pick up plastic pellets on a beach on Lamma Island, in Hong Kong, on Aug. 5, 2012

Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets have peppered the beaches of Hong Kong following a powerful typhoon, and now a major cleanup effort focuses on the minutiae.

Typhoon Vicente — the worst to hit the city in 13 years — rocked boats last month, tipping six cargo containers into the sea south of Hong Kong. Inside those containers were millions upon millions of nurdles, tiny plastic pellets used in factories to create other plastic products. And now the raindrop-size plastic bits have started to wash ashore. Despite what it looks like, no, it isn’t snow.

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While an obvious eyesore and trash hazard for the beaches, there’s a bigger concern over having millions of the tiny, translucent pellets bobbing around: the threat to marine life. Environmentalists now worry that the roughly 150 tons of pellets spilled will prove toxic by absorbing pollutants in the water, which could infect marine life, especially as fish start to ingest them. And if dangerous to fish, they could also be dangerous to the humans eating such fish. As the Associated Press reported, there are also concerns that the Chinese white dolphin, already a rare species, could be further threatened by the nurdles.

Hundreds of volunteers have jumped on the cleanup effort, working through the weekend in residential communities on Lamma Island, just south of the city center, and Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island, after finding their waterfront areas inundated with the pellets. But cleaning them up proved a daunting, tedious task as volunteers used brushes and dustpans to slowly pick up the debris, making only slight headway into the mess. “It’s a bit overwhelming. It seems like we can’t get rid of them even though there are hundreds of people here,” Mathis Antony, a volunteer on Lamma Island, told the Associated Press. “It looks like it’s going to take a lot more to clean it up.”

The Hong Kong government plans to send in paid reinforcements, hiring workers to spend what could be months cleaning up the mess on 10 different beaches across the territory. Estimates say that about 150 tons of the pellets spilled, and 50 tons were picked up still in the bags marked with the manufacturer. With about 21 tons washed ashore, it’s little surprise that such tiny particles are causing a massive headache for cleanup crews.

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