Sinopec Plastic Pellet Disaster worsens

I am often surprised and shocked by a lot of things that happen in Hong Kong – good and bad and the last few days have certainly been both.

The speed of response and manpower that has been offered for this massive pellet spill has been surprising and very much appreciated.  All the government departments that I asked for help have assisted.  Our local management has been great in providing an immediate response to this disaster.   On Thursday we had the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), the Food, Environment & Hygiene Department (FEHD) and local management cleaning the beach with a few of us volunteers.   All up we had close to 40 people, workers and supervisors come out to join forces with myself, Gary Stokes, Kevin Laurie, Angie Bucu and my sister Jodi.  And boy did we all work hard.  Millions of nurdles are not easy to get off a beach!

We were able to remove in excess of 150 bags of nurdles from the sand.  Unfortunately further exploration of the rocky coastline revealed that the disaster was far worse than first thought.

We found around 200 Sinopec branded bags that day making a total of 5000kg of known pellets – alas, half of them had already spilt their contents.

The frustrating thing was trying to get in contact with Sinopec to ask if they had an environmental management plan to contain a plastic pellet spill and to find out how big this was likely to be.  Surely a company with such a glowing and incredibly proud CSR policy would know what to do and be out here to follow up, I thought naively.    The receptionist I spoke with basically told me that they did not have an environmental deptartment and there was no one that could speak to me and then hung up.  For the rest of the day their one phone was off the hook.  I sent them a fax and hoped that it would be read and responded to.

Fortunately after 36hrs delay senior management did respond and they came out to Discovery Bay to meet with us.  We took them to see the 110 or so full bags we had (with dozens of empty bags there too) and then to both local beaches where 40 more bags (intact and not) had washed ashore.

The Sinopec staff were very apologetic and promised to help cooperate with us to find the company that was responsible through the barcodes visible on the bags.  We now have these details including the shipping company and the locations of the spill.  Unfortunately Sinopec do not have any policy or advice on what to do once the pellets leave their factory and what happens if there is a pellet spill.

Gary & I have been spending a huge amount of time following up on this, spreading the word and trying to find out how much of HK this is affecting.  We know through social media sites that it is widespread and every hour or so we are getting calls from government and updates from people over HK reporting on their local beaches.

Sadly it seems this is now massive and we still don’t know the final numbers.  Confirmed this morning was that 3  40 ft shipping containers had been recovered from the sea with 2 of them open.  We don’t know how many of these bags fit into a container but the loss could run well over the 1000 bag mark.  If so, the consequences are devastating.

For me today, being on the beach at the DB Green Post Typhoon cleanup it was even more depressing than normal.  Typhoons have a way of showing you how badly you are treating the planet.  As I was filling my 1st, 2nd, 14th, 25th garbage bag of plastic and vegetation I couldn’t help but think about the scale and tragedy of it all.  The sheer amount of nurdles that were interspersed within the massive amounts of plastic wrappers, cups, straws, toys, styrofoam and nets and every single household item imaginable was truly shocking.  Now we have the full cycle of plastics, as if it wasn’t difficult enough already!  How have we got to this point where at least 10 tonnes of mostly plastic rubbish in all its forms can be dumped on one beach from one of the top cities of the world?

One thing that has amazed me though was the FEHD cleanup team that was dispatched to help  remove the 150 + bags we found on the rocks.  I met them on Friday at the beach at 9am (they had arrived and were cleaning since 6!) and was really shocked. That morning we were to remove over 2000kg of bags and this was the team that was sent.  There were 5 workers and the 2 women when asked, told me they were in their 70s.  I spoke of my reservations to the supervisor and his response is below.

They certainly were fine – they were actually unbelievable.  These people are the most hardworking and strong workers you will ever find!  The women were incredible carrying the 25kg sacks on their shoulders over the slippery rocks.  I was really humbled to be working alongside them.  Certainly the unsung heroes of HK.

A lot of people have been asking me what they can do to help.  The urgent need is to get the plastic pellets off the beaches before they get into the water.  Whilst they are resting on the sand they are really easy to sweep up with a dust pan and brush.  If you have 30 mins or more to spare it would be great to get down to your local beach and fill up a garbage bag.  It isn’t dirty work, the plastic isn’t harmful whilst it is on the sand and anyone can do it.  The garbage bags can be put in the normal rubbish bin.  Also, please let me know what the state of your beach is as we are co-ordinating cleanups with the FEHD and we also want to get a good idea of which beaches are most contaminated and get to them fast.

Every nurdle counts, you never know where that nurdle could have ended up!

Typhoon Vicente aftermath

On Monday night HK suffered its worst typhoon for 13 years.  Typhoon Vicente was classed as T10 or Hurricane force with winds reaching 156km per hour.  For us here in Discovery Bay the winds hit very hard.  The rattling windows, howling, whistling winds and pounding rain were frightening throughout the night and as I lay awake my thoughts were with those less fortunate than us that didn’t have strong shelter protecting them.

The devastation the next morning was obvious and everywhere in Discovery Bay.  Big trees were completely uprooted and blown over in the plaza, along the streets and sadly on the main beach; the only ones providing shade for the kiddies using the beach playground.

I was on the main beach (Tai Pak) yesterday but today I went to Sam Pak Wan at the north plaza to see the state of the beach.  I had intended to take some photographs to use for a Post- Typhoon cleanup this weekend I was going to organise through DB Green but what I saw there almost made me cry.

I knew it was going to be bad.  It always is after a typhoon, especially one as big as Vicente whose winds powered straight into DB but I really wasn’t prepared for what I saw.

The whole beach was covered in the usual tonnes of horrendous detritus spewed from the sea consisting mainly of styrofoam and  ‘single use’ plastics.

But worse still, this time it also had what looked like a complete covering of snow.  The words from my son years ago echoed in my head “Mum, will it ever snow in Hong Kong?’  Yes, Finn this week it has and the snow will last not just for a day but far beyond your life and that of your great grand children!

The snow was in fact nurdles.  On the beach we found 30 bags each with 25 kgs of nurdles inside or 750 kg.  11 of the bags had split open and covered the whole length of the beach, that is 275 kg of nurdles on the sand.  I did a weight estimate of the nurdles and surmised that the 275 kg equates to about 11 million plastic nurdles spilt on the sand with a total of at least 30 million on the beach!

So much publicity is given to oil spills and the harm it does to wildlife and beaches, and rightly so too, but this plastic spill is also an environmental disaster and needs to be treated as such.   These pre-production plastic pellets – nurdles, are a health hazard with serious consequences to marine life and humans too.  Not as obviously dangerous and shocking in photographs as a bird covered in oil is, but still equally as toxic.  Once in the seas and oceans, these nurdles are sponges for Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which are industrial chemicals or pesticides.  POPs are highly toxic chemicals that can cause an array of adverse effects in humans such as cancer, reproductive disorders and disruption to the immune and endocrine systems.  The easiest and most common way for these nurdles and therefore POPs to get into the food chain is to be mistaken as fish eggs and eaten by marine life.  The effects of the POPs bioaccumulates in the food chain, so basically as the smaller fish get eaten by the larger fish the toxic loads increase as well.

Above are fish eggs attached to some ocean debris which was found from the Algalita/5 Gyres Tsunami Debris expedition.

So what can be done?

Hopefully a lot and it will take the efforts of many people and organisations to rectify this.

I will be contacting Sinopec who manufactured these nurdles to respond to this incident in an immediate and professional manner.  As a company who has a Corporate Social Responsibilty policy in place I would expect them to have available the means to clean up a spill such as this.  I am well aware that this incident happened during a typhoon but it is not an excuse to do nothing.  I will also be contacting the Environmental Protection Department, the Marine Dept and the Food Environment & Hygiene Dept who collectively oversee our beaches as well as Discovery Bay’s City Management and my local District Councillor.  I will continue with my planned beach cleanup on the weekend with community support and hopefully by then all the nurdles will have been removed from the sand so we can concentrate on the hundreds of kilograms of ‘disposable’ plastics caught in rocks and bushes.  There is so much rubbish on the beach that it is going to take a lot of effort from all.

Plastic Soup

I’m back in Hong Kong and happy to be home.  Not seeing the kids for 7 weeks was hard but knowing that I was away from them to witness and act on an environmental disaster and try and do what I can to make their future a little healthier was worth it.

The last few days have afforded me a chance for reflection on the incredible journey I have been on.  Whilst on the plane back to Tokyo for the very short 8 hour flight I spent a lot of time looking out the window.  Seeing the breathtaking blueness of the ocean blending into the sky from above led me to contemplate the 28 days it took to reach Hawaii.  I looked down on the waves and wondered if it would be possible to spot the Sea Dragon from this height.    For me the whole journey was an unbelievable experience.

We witnessed Mother Nature at her best and her… um … most interesting.  Stunning sunsets and sunrises, a full moon, the Milky Way shining so bright, dolphins playing alongside the boat, magnificent albatross gliding above, glorious sunshine, gale force winds, stinging rain, howling wind, whales, peace, quiet, isolation and incredible beauty; we had it all and more.

Every day on each daylight watch we had to do one hour timed observations.  It was both one of my favourite and saddest hours.  Sitting back to back with a friend at the front of the boat, each looking out to the water beyond we recorded everything we saw.  Being able to spend 1-2hrs a day just staring at the middle of the ocean was a privilege.  Witnessing the myriad blues or greys was such a pleasure.  But it was very sobering noting the progress of the boat by the amount of plastic that was floating past in what should be a pristine environment.  Over the weeks we documented more than 700 pieces of plastic, which translated into a piece of plastic floating by every 3 and a half minutes!  60 odd years of disposable plastic has left this legacy.  We saw toothbrushes, water bottles, shampoo bottles, cigarette lighters, Styrofoam pieces, broken buckets, crates, buoys, nets and ropes, bottle lids, containers small & large and hundreds of unidentifiable fragments.  I thought of the path we took across the Pacific Ocean and how insignificantly narrow the swath of water we sailed through was.  Indubitably the ocean is so vast and the findings from our expedition were in my thoughts as we flew over the thousands of miles we had navigated.  To put our results into perspective with the minute fraction of the ocean we surveyed is almost unimaginable.  We can still only guess at how much plastic is out there but we do know that this amount must be huge.   Sadly, the visible surface plastic is not the worst part.

Every sub-surface trawl we did contained plastic.  There were coloured micro fragments, nurdles and larger pieces trapped in the net amongst the fish, jellies and other marine life.  One of our last trawls contained the most amount of plastic and possibly the least amount of marine life, the sample contained hundreds of pieces of coloured plastic.  This was truly the infamous plastic soup.

The terrible thing is that there is no way we can clean up this mess we have already created.  We cannot sieve the entire ocean to remove this we can only work on ways to stop our addiction to plastic and try and stem the flow of plastics that make their way into the ocean everyday making this problem worse.  It needs to be a joint action from everyone; individuals, families, schools, businesses, industry and government.  We all need to work together to reduce our plastic consumption and change our purchasing attitudes, that is basically the bottom line.

A beach day with the kids

It is summer holidays for the schools in HK so today was a beach day.  I packed a bag, got the kids ready and we headed off to our local beach.  I didn’t pack any toys for them because I knew they would find things to amuse themselves with when we got down there.  And I wasn’t wrong!  Before we had gone 3 metres we found a football, a little bucket and a play watering can.  They built sandcastles, wrote in the sand and played with the ‘treasures’ they found on the beach.  Sounds like a nice morning if you don’t see the pictures.

We then walked along the beach and collected things of interest.  Evie picked up toothbrushes and Finn & Keira picked up little toys and bottle lids.  I collected the large plastic drums.  The tally for collection was as follows

Evie – 34 toothbrushes and 1 toothpaste tube

Finn & Keira – 298 lids and 14 toys

Tracey – 11 fuel or chemical containers

After we had collected our big treasures we hunted easily through the sand for the small nurdles* or ‘mermaid tears’.  Because it was gettting hot and the kids had been promised ice creams we did this for 5 minutes and collected close to 100 in a 30cm square patch.  They were so unbelievably prolific it was actually quite shocking for me.

So we packed our beach bits in my bag, wandered off to the shops to wash our hands and eat some ice cream.  A great morning at Sam Pak Wan, Discovery Bay!

*Nurdles are pre production plastic pellets.  They are produced by the billion around the world and shipped, trucked or transported by train to factories to be turned into everything plastic.  Unfortuanetly they also escape in the millions, travel easily through waterways and are found on every single beach in the world.  I am not surprised they are so prolific in HK with the amount of industry around us.  The nurdles are known attractors for persistant organic pollutants (POPs) which are toxic chemicals that adversely affect human health and the environment.  The POPs can accumulate and pass from one species to the next through the food chain.

Terra Firma

Apologies for the delay in getting this up.  To be honest it has been a bit of a shock to the system as well as a joy being on land again and I don’t even know where to begin this post!

Our arrival into Hawaii was not as planned.  We ended up on Oahu rather than Maui due to the uncooperative winds.  If we had continued to sail to Maui it would have taken another 2 days at least, and we were low on fuel, provisions and energy so it seemed like a sensible decision.  When we did get on the plane to Maui from Honolulu it was only a 25 min flight!!

Four of us flew to Maui where we were scheduled to speak almost immediately at a Plastic Pollution Panel Discussion at the Hawaiian Islands Whale Sanctuary visitor centre with 50 people in attendance.  It was great to be talking plastic with everyone and there were a lot of interesting discussions about overcoming our dependence on single use plastics.  It was a nice introduction to the work that is ahead of me.

I am so excited about coming back to HK in a couple of days.  I have a lot of big ideas that I want to implement for which I will be needing help.  If you want to get involved please let me know – I will need it.  I’ll be writing a lot more over the coming days about the journey and also my plans, when I get my head around being back in the real world.  At the moment I am just enjoying my last day in Maui walking in a straight line without falling over, feeling grass beneath my feet, eating fresh food and taking a very relaxing pause in life.

See you soon!…