Tracey Read on Hong Kong Plastic Pellet Spill

Tracey Read on Hong Kong Plastic Pellet Spill

Tracey Read. Credit: Gary Stokes.
7,000 Volunteers Clean Up
Hong Kong, Aug. 21, 2012 - - "People from all over have come to help. A mother and son drove an hour from the other side of Hong Kong to help" stated Tracey Read. Tracey is a beach clean-up organizer with a local environmental group called DB Green, based in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong.

Tracey and the volunteers were cleaning up what has become known as the worst plastic spill to ever occur. On July 23rd, Typhoon Vicente raged through Hong Kong and the South China Sea, dislodging at least six cargo containers from a cargo ship into the sea.

Nurdle Snow. Plastic pellets cover Hong Kong beaches. Courtesy: Tracey Read, Hong Kong

At least five of the containers carried tons of plastic pellets, sometimes called plastic granules, also known as nurdles. Most of the containers burst open, dispersing the plastic pellets into the ocean. By the next morning, millions of nurdles had washed ashore, covering approximately 17 local beaches. The ocean held even more plastic pellets.

The beaches literally looked as if they were covered in snow. "The sixth cargo container still has not been found', said Tracey.

Plastic Pellet Clean-Up
How do you clean up plastic pellets? "Trying all sorts of things", stated Tracey, speaking in a phone interview from Hong Kong. "Hand-held sifters, styrofoam beverage coolers, and boxes with holes in them." She went on to explain that the plastic pellets float, so when a scoop of sand is placed in one of the devices with water, the pellets float to the top.

"We also have used industrial vaccuum cleaners. Net skimmers are used in the ocean to collect the nurdles from the water. We collected 70 kilos Friday after another typhoon, Kai-Tak, swept through the night before and brought more pellets onto the beaches", she further explained. Typhoon season is usually from May to September.

In fact, another typhoon, Typhoon Tembin, is expected to to cross Taiwan and make landfall just east of Hong Kong by Thursday, Aug. 23rd, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center. Typhoon Temblin will most likely wash more plastic pellets onto the beaches - nature's way of helping purge the ocean of this environmental disaster.

Plastic Pellets in Fish
There are numerous fish farms around the area and especially at Chi Ma Wan, a bay on the southeastern shore of Lantau Island. Owners of the fish farms are known as mariculturist. Mariculturists have found plastic pellets in their fish.

On Aug.8th during a visit to Chi Ma Wan, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said the Government would provide support to the mariculturist industry affected by the plastic pellet spill. The highest proportion of plastic pellets have been found in Chi Ma Wan and Secretary Lam was inspecting the pellets' impact on the maricultrists there.

After a mariculturist took a knife and cut open a fish to show Mrs. Lam that there were plastic pellets inside the fish, she said the Government will investigate who is responsible for the spill and take remedial action.

Unopened bags of nurdles stacked on the beach. Credit: Tracey Read.

Sinopec, Maker of the Pellets
Although the cause of the disaster could not be immediately determined, it was easy to determine the manufacturer of the plastic pellets. After manufacturing, the plastic factory put the pellets inside bags clearly marked with a barcode and the name of the company - Sinopec. Known as Sinopec, the company is actually China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, owned and operated by the Government of China. Sinopec, a multinational company, is on of the largest integrated petroleum and chemical companies in China.

According to Tracey, " I rang Sinopec the next day and got nowhere. I then sent them a fax outlining the problem. Sinopec has a glowing CSR policy and I thought they would respond immediately. After 36 hours, they contacted me and came to Discovery Bay to meet with us. They were in awe when they saw the disaster.

Several company executives then came down to help with the clean-up and worked together well with the volunteers, NGO's and private organizations. They've done everything we asked and did it quickly."

The clean-up is expected to take months and may never be totally complete. At less than 5 mm in diameter, nurdles are light and float in water. They get buried in the sand easily. There is really no way to know how far the plastic pellets will be carried by the currents of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean and is the second most-used sea lane in the world. One-third of the world's shipping transits through its waters.(1) Unquestionably, plastic pellets will begin to show up in waters around the Philippines, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Indonesia and many other countries. Watch the news.

Cover photo: Hong Kong. Massive nurdle spill. Plastic pellets cover the beaches. Credit: Gary Stokes.

Tracey Read: journeytotheplasticocean
DB Green

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