Hong Kong Nurdles

I thought I'd get down on my hands and knees today, to shoot with a macro lens, the plastics on beaches in Hong Kong that are practically invisible to the naked eye.


Camouflaged against the sand, a clear-coloured nurdle looks like a little like a sand granule or a tiny bit of grit. If you don't already know about them you probably wouldn't even know they were there. The nurdle at the top left of the above image is about 3mm in diameter, and looks a little like a nurdle in another picture I took nearly three years ago.

The proper name for a nurdle is a 'Pre-Production Plastic Pellet', or PPPP. Most beach-goers are completely oblivious to nurdles. Sometimes they are called 'mermaid's tears'.

A PPPP is what plastic looks like in its raw form after leaving the factory that made it from crude oil. These factories are usually located near oil refineries in countries like Saudi Arabia. Bags of the stuff are shipped on pallettes to factories that make plastic products around the world - including China, of course.

Unfortunately a whole lot of the infernal things escape during transportation. Sometimes trucks spill nurdles, sometimes trains and sometimes ships. The nurdles that actually arrive at their intended destination, that didn't get lost along the way, are poured into molding machines that heat and extrude them into anything and everything made from plastic in our daily lives.

But there are now so many 'lost' nurdles in the world's oceans that scientists are increasingly worried as nurdles absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs), some of which can be cancer-causing. When toxic nurdles are eaten by marine animals, the 'bioaccumulated' toxins gradually work their way up the food chain ending up on our plate, via the seafood that we, the human race, consume in such vast quantities.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, are doing a study into the PPPP problem right now on their boat the 'New Horizon'.

Here is an extract from their SEAPLAX blog, which explains the awful problem in great detail.

There are two issues we are dealing with here. One, the plastic leaches chemicals used in manufacturing that can be toxic to organisms at certain concentrations. And, the issue that worries me most, plastics are like magnets to pollutants already present in seawater and these adhere to their surfaces at magnified concentrations. The ocean is the ultimate sink for many industrial and agricultural pollutants. It is a known fact that pesticides, fuel residue, flame retardants, etc… are in the oceans. These are a few of what we refer to as a suite of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. Many POPs are known to be harmful to marine organisms. Animals will bioconcentrate (take up directly) these pollutants from water or sediments, or bioaccumulate them (through ingestion from other contaminated organisms). Rachel Carson told the story of how DDT, a pesticide, brought the brown pelicans down to crippling numbers. POPs are persistent and not very soluble and thus can concentrate in the water, sediments and the food chain… and now plastic.

These pollutants are hydrophobic, meaning they do not like water and thus stick to other particles in the water. Plastic has become a new material for them to leach onto. Now, don’t let this fool you into sounding like a good thing because it removes the pollutants from the water. Some organisms ingest plastic, mistaking it for food. Once this plastic is introduced into their system the POPs have the ability to leach off and grab onto the tissue of the organism. As the animal eats more and more plastic it has the ability to accumulate more pollutants. Plastics have been documented to attract magnified amounts of POPs from the water. Now, lets say ten krill eat a plastic pellet and accumulate a certain amount of a pollutant. Then, two fish eat five of the krill each and now each have five times as much pollutant as the krill. Then a tuna comes along and eats the two fish and has ten times as much pollutant as the krill. Then the tuna is caught in a net, sold at the grocery store, and sold to you at the store to put on your dinner plate. After dinner, you have now accumulated the magnified concentration of pollutant. This is termed biomagnification. Now the issue involves more than just the ocean, but us. What are the adverse effects of some of these pollutants you may wonder? At certain levels some are carcinogens, may harm the reproductive system, disrupt the endocrine system, and some can lead to death.

(Text by Chelsea Rochman on Day 15 of Seaplex's oceanic fact-finding mission)

Scary stuff. Seeing the amount of plastics washing up on the beach in Hong Kong really does break my heart. Anyone fancy a biomagnified fish supper tonight?

A carelessly discarded cigarette lighter...

... and a carelessly discarded beach ball. Beach toys are so cheap in Hong Kong that people don't bother to bring them home. They just leave them on the beach for nature to deal with, as who wants brightly coloured sandy plastic stuff in their 500sq ft flat anyway?

A dirty beach is not complete without the ubiquitous piece of polystyrene foam. I think the light bobbly stuff should be banned. Spot the plastic 'watermelon' beach ball.

And there are a vast number of tootbrushes at large in the marine environment.

For more examples of toothbrushes found on beaches and at sea click here and here.

Spot the inflatable plastic lilos in the above photo. It took me over an hour with a friend to disentangle a destroyed big yellow inflatable dinghy from between the rocks the other day. It's plastic hull was pierced and had filled with sand and had become fully embedded in to the beach. It was nearly impossible to shift, and was sinking further into the sand with every tide. We had to use a dive knife to cut it apart, scooping the sand out from the different air chambers with our hands, before we finally freed the thing. Why it was there in the first place, I do not know.

The only organisation in Hong Kong that is trying to address the local and global problem of marine plastics pollution is Project Kaisei. It still seems no one else cares.


And now for something completely different.

I have a corporate client that has requested aerial shots of Hong Kong from a helicopter. The weather website said it would be perfect yesterday. So at 8.00am I got up to the the helipad on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, and was greeted by the above scene. Clouds! Too many of them! I don't mind a few small fluffy ones, but these were the big wet white and grey variety. Only Central district was lit up. Where was the blue sky promised me by the Hong Kong Observatory?

I had got out of bed ridiculously early for no reason. A waste of time, a job postponed. But not to worry, the deadline is early October so I still have time.

All images and text © Alex Hofford / Image Solutions Ltd. 2011 | Web design in Hong Kong by Ugli © 2011