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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

Documentary Review: “A Plastic Ocean” is a sobering film that everyone should see

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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