Last week I attended the screening of A Plastic Ocean hosted by Plastic Pollution Coalition, Algalita Marine Research and Education, 5 Gyres, Team Marine, Ed Begley Jr., and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). Thanks for a great event!
By: Shilpi Chhotray
Since when did we become a plastic society? The documentary A Plastic Ocean seeks answers as two fascinating ocean explorers embark on a four year journey to understand the depth and damage of plastic waste in our ocean. Director Craig Leeson and free-diver Tanya Streeter meet with renowned scientists and researchers to witness and communicate the growing issue of ocean plastic pollution to the world. The results are not pretty, nor did I expect them to be given the major implications for all life on earth- from microscopic plankton to giant whales and sea birds, and even human beings. A Plastic Ocean is a powerful film that reminds us of what’s at stake for our planet and the importance of leading conversations locally about our impact globally.
“We’ve treated the ocean as a place to throw things—dispose of things—that we did not want close to where we thought we lived. Actually, the whole planet is where we live.” So said Her Deepness, Dr. Sylvia Earle, in her appearance in the film.
The core message of the film is simple but compelling: plastic does not ever truly go away. Larger pieces of plastic break up (versus break down) into smaller pieces of microplastics which cause detrimental harm to all levels of the food chain, including humans. The most difficult part of the film for me to watch was the effect of plastic pollution on sea birds. In one scene, an avian research scientist pulls out over 120 pieces of plastic, some quite large, from a very small bird. It reminded me of the tiny snowy plovers I love to watch at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach- I felt responsible for the damage we are causing both on land and at sea. We must remember that plastic is a man-made synthetic and will never biodegrade. Every time we choose to use a plastic straw, water bottle, or disposable bag, we do not know where it’s going to end up- in the ocean or on land, it becomes the problem of another.
Craig and Tanya visit impoverished areas of the world like Tuvalu, Fiji and Manila- where people are literally living on massive mounds of plastic. The landfills never stop growing since there is no place for disposal, while the term “waste management” is considered a luxury and far from the norm. These communities are sadly the victims of our voracious dependence on single-use plastics. On the beaches of Manila, there is an urgent sense of desperation as we witness plastic not only up and down the beaches but reaching upwards towards the sky. The reality is plastic waste build up is happening all over the planet. It’s also important to note that plastic waste does not discriminate. In one very powerful scene, a plastic researcher describes how 92% of Americans have plastic and chemicals in our system, while our children have twice as much due to the leeching of chemicals into the body.
Ocean plastic pollution is no stranger to Mission Blue partner 5 Gyres, who is working tirelessly to fight the issue of plastic waste. Following the screening, I had the opportunity to speak with Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, 5 Gyres Executive Director. Rachel says, “The film really does a great job of summarizing the problem, and also showing how the toxic impact of plastic hits home. But I think we need to be careful in presenting the issue of marine plastic pollution as somehow limited to impoverished areas in places like the Philippines and Bali, when the reality is that massive output of plastic from the United States, among others, primarily drives the problem. We don’t believe that incineration is the solution to this problem—the focus should be primarily on behavior and design change.”
Rachel is spot on: we must encourage, embrace, and embody the change in our every day lives. In A Plastic Ocean, Craig demonstrates how change is not always simple. He walks into several places of businesses serving food (a cafe, restaurant, and even a fast food chain) where he asks for a meal void of plastic packaging. Craig was disappointed with the outcome as nothing was plastic-free. He decided to become creative in the way he approached his conversations and candidly suggested alternatives. This particular scene hit the message home for all of us concerned with plastic pollution. We must be the change and vigilantly spread the message within our communities. As someone who has been involved in plastic pollution prevention for the last few years, I’ve witnessed major milestones which gives me with hope that we can push towards a plastic-free future. Two hundred cities have now banned plastic bags globally and New Dehli, a city of 2 million people just banned all disposable plastics!
“Consider shifting to the idea of “refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle” when it comes to single-use plastics. Bring your own containers, bottles, bags and cups. Request your drink without a straw. If you forget your reusable mug, ask for coffee in a recycled paper cup without a plastic lid. Simply being conscious can bring about a whole lot of change,” indicates Rachel.