A Plastic Ocean
A Plastic Ocean Release Year: 2016 Director: Craig Leeson Running time: 1h 42min Watch trailer

A Plas­tic Ocean” is not the film its direc­tor, writer, and exec­u­tive pro­duc­er Craig Lee­son start­ed out making.

Off the coast of Sri Lan­ka in the Indi­an Ocean in 2011, jour­nal­ist and film­mak­er Lee­son was on a boat with a cam­era­man and crew try­ing to get footage for a doc­u­men­tary on the blue whale. While they got some blue whale footage, includ­ing what is believed to be the first under­wa­ter footage of a juve­nile pygmy blue whale, they were also sur­prised to catch on film a stream of garbage and debris.

A Plastic Ocean
A Plas­tic Ocean
Release Year: 2016
Direc­tor: Craig Lee­son
Run­ning time: 1h 42min
Watch trail­er

Under­wa­ter cam­era­man Doug Allen describes it fair­ly well at first: “Float­ing on the sur­face and a meter below was just this hor­ri­ble, crap­py, emul­si­fied mess of oil and bits of, you know…”

He trails off, strug­gling to find the words to cap­ture the assort­ment of items they fished out of the water (col­lect­ing them in a plas­tic shop­ping bas­ket one should only find in a gro­cery or drug store, not the mid­dle of the ocean).

Approx­i­mate­ly eight mil­lion tons of plas­tic is dumped in our oceans every year, with most of it com­ing not from boats and ocean ves­sels, but from land-based sources then mak­ing it’s way to the sea from rivers and streams.

Plas­tic wreaks hav­oc on the ocean envi­ron­ment and the plants, ani­mals, and fish that live in and around. Whales, which feed by open­ing their large jaws and tak­ing in large amounts of water, along with what­ev­er is in it, then expel the water, end up with stom­achs full of plas­tic instead of krill.

Microplas­tics, or the tiny lit­tle pel­lets of plas­tic that larg­er plas­tic debris often crum­bles into, are ingest­ed by fish, and the tox­ic chem­i­cals that ride on the plas­tic end up in the tis­sue of the fish, which larg­er ani­mals (includ­ing humans) then eat.

In an area of the North Pacif­ic Ocean with no vis­i­ble garbage on the sur­face of the water, Dr. Andrea Neal puts a trawl with a very fine net that catch­es any­thing larg­er than a pin­head into the water. A hand­ful of microplas­tics comes up in the net.

Dr. Neal says this “plas­tic smog” is more insid­i­ous than the infa­mous large float­ing island of plas­tics and oth­er garbage.

It is not just marine species that are endan­gered by plas­tic in the ocean. Seabirds like the alba­tross and shear­wa­ter are also strug­gling because of it.

Many birds die because they inad­ver­tent­ly eat small pieces of plas­tic or microplas­tics when they feed on fish from the ocean. Even­tu­al­ly their stom­achs are total­ly full of plas­tic, as we see when a cou­ple of birds are cut open.

You can see their stom­achs are large and hard before the stom­ach itself is cut, reveal­ing noth­ing but a vari­ety of plas­tic. It is esti­mat­ed that nine­ty per­cent of all seabirds have ingest­ed some plastic.

While some peo­ple are work­ing on ways to remove plas­tic that is already in the ocean, the big­ger and per­haps more impor­tant task is stop­ping the mas­sive flow of plas­tic that is cur­rent­ly going into the ocean.

Plas­tic is near­ly every­where in mod­ern soci­ety. Plas­tic is so ver­sa­tile that it has thou­sands of uses. The prob­lem is that it nev­er total­ly degrades.

Says Lee­son: “Plas­tic is won­der­ful because it is durable. And plas­tic is ter­ri­ble because it is durable.”

World-record free div­er Tanya Streeter notes in a TEDx talk we see a clip of in the film, that lots of plas­tic items are con­sid­ered “dis­pos­able,” and asks “how can a dis­pos­able prod­uct be made of a mate­r­i­al that is inde­struc­tible? Where does it go?”

She also notes that more plas­tic has been made in the last ten years than in the cen­tu­ry before that. We use mas­sive amounts of plas­tic, and are not reusing or recy­cling near­ly enough of it.

In one year, every per­son on the plan­et will use about three-hun­dred pounds of sin­gle use plas­tic. Just in the Unit­ed States, over thir­ty-eight bil­lion plas­tic water bot­tles will be thrown away in one year. It takes over six­ty-three bil­lion gal­lons of oil to make all the plas­tic water bot­tles used in the US every year, and over nine­ty per­cent of those bot­tles are only used once.

While the amount of plas­tic pro­duced each year is already mas­sive, pro­duc­tion is expect­ed to triple by 2050 as the world pop­u­la­tion increases.

We need to start tak­ing action to address this prob­lem now.

First of all, we can try to use less plas­tic to begin with.

One of the big cul­prits is plas­tic pack­ag­ing on food. Ask your gro­cer and restau­rants you fre­quent not to pack­age food in plastic.

If you have to buy food in plas­tic, buy it in larg­er quan­ti­ties. With yogurt, for exam­ple, you should buy the large con­tain­er rather than the indi­vid­ual serv­ings. When get­ting pro­duce at the gro­cery store, avoid using the plas­tic pro­duce bags except for small­er items, or rinse and re-use bags for mul­ti­ple gro­cery trips.

At home, use alu­minum foil (and then recy­cle it!) instead of plas­tic wrap or plas­tic bags. Wash and reuse plas­tic bags for items that you can’t put in foil, or use reusable con­tain­ers instead of bags and foil. Use glass food con­tain­ers instead of plas­tic when­ev­er pos­si­ble. Reduc­ing the plas­tics we use to store and serve food is impor­tant not just for the envi­ron­ment, but also our health, since we often ingest tox­ic chem­i­cals such as BPA when we eat and drink from plas­tic containers.

Many peo­ple already take reusable cloth bags to car­ry their gro­ceries in, and this is great. Why not also use those reusable bags when you do oth­er shop­ping, like at the mall, depart­ment stores, drug stores, etc.? Use the big pile of plas­tic shop­ping bags you’ve already got­ten from your shop­ping as garbage bags instead of buy­ing plas­tic garbage bags, or recy­cle them; most gro­cery stores have a col­lec­tion bin.

The City of Seat­tle’s plas­tic bag ban went into effect in 2012, and an increas­ing num­ber of cities around the coun­try are fol­low­ing suit with their own bans.

Rawan­da has a coun­try-wide ban on plas­tic bags, and in “A Plas­tic Ocean”, we see work­ers mak­ing paper bags. Push your city, coun­ty, and state to ban plas­tic bags, plas­tic water bot­tles, and plas­tic straws and uten­sils at restaurants.

Along with using less plas­tic, we should recy­cle what we do use. It is said in the film that the tech­nol­o­gy now exists to recy­cle most plas­tics, so the issue now is get­ting the infra­struc­ture, sys­tems, and col­lec­tion meth­ods to do it on a large scale. For exam­ple, there is a com­pa­ny in Ire­land that cre­at­ed a process to turn “end of life” plas­tics like can­dy bar wrap­pers and plas­tic bags into diesel.

In Ger­many, a 1991 law makes man­u­fac­tur­ers respon­si­ble for the recy­cling or dis­pos­al of any pack­ag­ing mate­r­i­al they sell.

This has led to exten­sive recy­cling pro­grams, includ­ing vend­ing-machine-type devices at almost every gro­cery store where con­sumers can deposit plas­tic bot­tles and get a few cents back for each one. Every­one recy­cles because they get mon­ey back for doing so, and recy­cling is a lucra­tive industry.

We ought to devel­op a sim­i­lar law in the Unit­ed States.

Some peo­ple are lob­by­ing to clas­si­fy plas­tic as haz­ardous, and then exist­ing laws about dis­pos­al of haz­ardous mate­r­i­al would then cov­er plastics.

The film also high­lights and inter­est­ing social enter­prise called The Plas­tic Bank. In Haiti, peo­ple can turn in recy­clable plas­tic and get mon­ey or nec­es­sary goods in exchange. The plas­tic is recy­cled and then sold to be used in manufacturing.

Near the end of “A Plas­tic Ocean”, Lee­son offers this thought: “Every species on the plan­et works towards the ben­e­fit of the ecol­o­gy and envi­ron­ment that it lives in, but us humans, we just seem like pas­sen­gers on this earth.”

This obser­va­tion real­ly struck a chord with me. It is amaz­ing how every species serves a unique and nec­es­sary bio­log­i­cal func­tion on this plan­et. Except humans, as far as I can tell. We just seem to end­less­ly con­sume and destroy. Or is our func­tion to destroy the plan­et, until most cur­rent species die off and an entire­ly new world is cre­at­ed from the dras­ti­cal­ly altered envi­ron­ments we’ve left behind?

I hon­est­ly don’t believe that is our pur­pose (nor do I want to go any fur­ther down that exis­ten­tial black hole) so let’s all just agree to try to pre­serve the plan­et we’ve got, since it real­ly is an amaz­ing and beau­ti­ful place. If we stop cov­er­ing it in plastic.

If you have more ideas for reduc­ing plas­tic usage in every­day life, whether through using mate­ri­als oth­er than plas­tic or reusing plas­tic items as much as pos­si­ble, please leave a com­ment in the thread below.

You can stream “A Plas­tic Ocean” on Net­flix, or rent or buy it on YouTube, Google Play, or iTunes. You can also request to host a screen­ing, check out the sched­ule of screen­ings, or rent or buy the film direct­ly from Plas­tic Oceans Foun­da­tion.

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