What are Pellets?

Pellets, or nurdles as they are often called, are pre-production plastic resin pellets. Essentially, it is the raw plastic before it has been made into an end-use item such as a plastic bag, bottle or toy.

Plastic pellets are usually about 3-5mm in length.

The pellets can be made a specific colour or translucent. They can be round or have straight cut edges.

Plastic can be reformed back into pellets through recycling.

Pellets that have been in the seawater for a long time tend to discolour to a brown or orange hue due to the chemical pollutants that cling to the surface of the plastic. This adsorbtion of chemicals happens with all plastic, but it is easily visible on the translucent pellets.

How do pellets get released into the environment?

Plastic pellets are transported from the manufacturing plant to factories via trucks, trains and in cargo containers on ships. Spills can occur in plants and factories as well as during transportation. As pellets are extremely small and lightweight, they can easily end up in drains, which can lead to rivers and the sea. Manufacturing plants and transportation companies have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their product and they should implement best practices (such as those contained in Operation Clean Sweep) to minimise risk.

Strict control and response measures need to be in place to ensure that spillage of pellets is contained. This means that grates need to be in place over drains to catch pellets before they enter water courses. Spill kits need to be readily accessible (brooms & vacuums) and containers need to be checked for wear & tear to prevent accidents as a minimum.

How are plastic pellets harmful?

One of the features that makes plastic pellets more likely to be ingested is their similarity in size and shape to fish eggs.  A lot of marine species feed on fish eggs.  When pellets (and any type of plastic) have been in the water for a while, algae, bacteria and microorganisms can also build up on the plastic.

Fish may be confused by the size, shape and smell of this non-food source and ingest it. Research has shown that microbes and algae on plastic release a food-like odour and it is attractive not only to fish but also turtles and seabirds.

Algae covered plastic pellets

Fish eggs on a comb from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

How can pellets be cleaned off the beach?

It is extremely difficult and time consuming to remove pellets from beaches once they are there. Usually they are sporadic throughout the sand and it is a case of picking them out individually. When there are greater concentrations of them there are various methods that can be implemented.

Pellets can be removed with the use of sieves and manually sifting the sand, or by putting them into water and using a ‘float and sink’  method – sand sinks and pellets usually float.

Rotational sifting devices or flat ‘sieves’, usually requiring two to hold, have also been used effectively. During the plastic pellet spill vacuum cleaners were also used to remove the large quantities of pellets!

2012 Plastic Pellet Spill Hong Kong

Handheld net removing pellets from water

Rotational Sifting Device

Handheld sieves in dry sand

Tell me about the 2012 Hong Kong Pellet Spill

In July 2012, Hong Kong was the location of the world’s largest documented plastic pellet spill. Hong Kong held that title until 2021 when a cargo ship caught fire and sank off the coast of Sri Lanka, spilling an estimated 1,680 tonnes of pellets into the sea.

On July 23, 6 x 40ft shipping containers were lost at sea near the Hong Kong coastline during Typhoon Vicente. Each shipping container held 1,000 x 25 kg bags of pre-production plastic resin pellets. Much of this cargo was washed ashore on south facing Hong Kong beaches. A total of 150 tonnes of pellets were lost at sea.

Pellet spills are constantly happening near plastic producing factories, and along transport routes on land and out at sea. Most of these spills go unreported.

2012 Hong Kong Pellet Spill Timeline

July 25 – Plastic Free Seas was the first to discover the pellet spill on Lantau Island at Discovery Bay’s Sam Pak Wan beach. 30 bags of pellets were found bearing the name SINOPEC along with a deep layer of pellet ‘snow’ covering the length of the beach. The government was alerted, as was SINOPEC, to start the cleanup of this event.

July 26 – Joint cleanup activities with the government and volunteers began. Over five tonnes of pellets were removed from one beach. During this cleanup a further 170 bags were found. The media was alerted.

July 27 – SINOPEC surveyed the areas where the bags were found and committed to assisting with the cleanup. Over the course of the weekend it was discovered that six containers had been lost and this problem was not isolated to Lantau Island. A press release was sent out.

July 31 – A meeting was held with three members of the public (PFS’ Tracey Read, Gary Stokes and Kevin Laurie who were leading the pellet spill cleanup), the Marine Dept., Environmental Protection Dept., Food Environment & Hygiene Dept., SINOPEC and the shipping company – China Shipping. The meeting was to understand the scale of the problem and initiate a comprehensive cleanup plan. HK non government groups (NGOs) were contacted for assistance in the cleanup.

July 31 – Helicopter searches over HK revealed two full container spills at Beaufort Island and Lamma Island.  The entire contents of one container spilling on each of the beaches resulted in a snow-like appearance with plastic pellets knee deep in places. Other areas identified for cleanup operations included Chi Ma Wan peninsula and Mui Wo on Lantau Island.

August 3 – A wide-scale cleanup operation from the government was initiated.

August 4 – Local media finally picked up the news with intense coverage.

August 5 – HK beaches were flooded with volunteers. Tung O Wan, East Lamma received 1,000 volunteer cleaners to help. Most had caught the ferry and then hiked 45 minutes to get there.

Intense cleanup operations continued for many weeks following with thousands of volunteers coordinating through Facebook pages.  Government and contract cleaners were using all means necessary to clean including industrial vacuum cleaners. Volunteers developed their own methods for removing pellets including a rotating sand sifting machine as well as hand-held colanders. The new HK craze of nurdling started with individuals, families and groups of friends descending on beaches and sifting sand to remove nurdles for hours at a time.

The last government statistics reported that about 70% of pellets have been recovered.

As a direct result of the enthusiasm and commitment shown by the people of Hong Kong, the government funded the two-year Coastal Watch programme to continue to promote marine conservation and coastal cleanups, utilising scientific methods and citizen science, and ongoing monitoring to protect Hong Kong’s ecologically valuable marine habitats.

Whilst the pellet spill was a very negative event for the environment, the increased awareness and action taken to combat plastic pollution in Hong Kong by the general public was a catalyst for significant resources and focus from the HK government to finally address this longstanding issue. The first Inter Departmental Working Group on Marine Environemental Management – Clean Shorelines – comprised of nine government departments, was set up to focus on the issue of plastic marine pollution.

This was a BIG victory for Hong Kong.

Did You Know?


After an exhaustive pellet spill cleanup during the hot summer months of 2012, thousands of volunteers, NGOs, companies and government staff successfully removed 102 tonnes of the 150 tonnes of plastic pellets spilled.

Did You Know?


Research has shown that a single plastic pellet may attract up to one million times the concentration of some pollutants in seawater, and these chemicals may be available to marine life upon ingestion.

Resources & Reports