Millions of Fish-Killing Plastic Pellets Wash Up on Hong Kong Beaches

That’s not snow. It’s a plastic spill. Ugh.
Hundreds of millions of plastic pellets from containers knocked off a vessel during a typhoon have washed up on Hong Kong’s beaches. (Siu Chiu/Reuters)
Aug 10, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Have you ever heard of a nurdle? Me neither—until I read a Discovery story that, “Chinese oil major Sinopec on Thursday offered to help pay to clean up tonnes of plastic pellets that have fouled Hong Kong beaches since a spill at sea during a typhoon two weeks ago.”

“The pellets, called nurdles, were in six containers that were washed off a cargo ship during Typhoon Vicente” and one of the containers is still missing. Although Sinopec said the nurdles are not believed to be toxic, “Some of the pellets have been found in the guts of fish farmed in Hong Kong, sparking concerns about the safety of consuming locally-produced seafood.”

The Guardian reported the Hong Kong government had also “assured citizens that the white, polypropylene beads are inert and non-toxic in themselves but environmentalists say they can absorb pollutants and poison the food chain.” 

MORE: Ocean Acidification: The Climate Change Disaster You Didn’t Know Existed

In fact, despite their supposedly non-toxic nature, the pellets have begun killing fish in fish farms. The Guardian quotes legislator Wong Yung-kan, who represents the agriculture and fisheries industry, as saying, "The fish are not eating, and they are getting thinner and they will die slowly . . . We are already seeing the impact in a number of fish farms. We will see more fish deaths."

But you don't need a major spill to have a pretty big nurdle problem.

Speak Up For The Blue explains that, “Nurdles commonly find their way into the marine environment during the shipping process due to spills or simply by clinging to external objects while being transferred between locations. They are so good at this that they have become regular constituents of sand with one study finding that sand particles sized 1-15mm found on remote Hawaiian beaches were 72% plastic.”

Because of their size, shape, and color, tan nurdles closely resemble many plankton. “Such ‘nurdle plankton’ has been found embedded in the tissues of the animals that consume them. Oval shaped nurdles are also highly dangerous offenders as they are very similar to fish eggs. These ‘nurdle eggs’ have been found to have been consumed by over 70 different species of seabirds.”

Aside from this domino effect on the food chain, Speak For The Blue points out that nurdles also have “devastating impacts at chemical and molecular levels. Nurdles are great at absorbing and concentrating toxic chemicals. They accumulate hydrophobic pollutants such as DDE and PCB . . . These pollutants are often 1,000,000 times more concentrated on a nurdle than they are in ambient sea water. The result? Seabirds that have ingested such plastic pollution have been found to have higher levels of PCB content in their tissues.”

A happy circle of life, this is not.

Many people want to ban plastic bags. Do you support them? Do you think plastic pellets should be added to the list?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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