January 26, 2017

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

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© 5 Gyres

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.

plastic-bottle-606881_960_720Ocean 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.

The aim of A Plastic Ocean is not ‘doom and gloom’ but to make us think about how we approach plastic- the most durable material on the planet. As Craig describes in the film, every single piece produced is still on the planet in some shape or form. With 300 million tons produced each year, we are creating a problem that needs to be solved, sooner than later. The health of our planet is in our hands. 
© 5 Gyres

© 5 Gyres

If plastic pollution is important to you, voteMission Blue is dedicated to putting threats to ocean health on policy agendas. Now is the time to act to protect the natural systems that sustain us! Hope Spots, Earth’s most vital marine ecosystems, face a barrage of threats, including ocean plastics, that can be prevented by effective policy. Will you help us select which ocean issue to urge policymakers to focus on next? Vote and make your voice heard — to protect the BLUEhttp://woobox.com/your7i


  • Very good article, educational and an eye opener for all. Western civilization, in particular, should take note of this and do its part to minimize its impact from further damage to the oceans and its inhabitants. Would suggest to come up with some definitive mitigating steps that are practical and can be relatively easily practiced and implemented. I am sure cutting out the use of the plastic containers is a first step that will go a long way. Obviously, convenience has to be compromised.

  • Jhinu Chhotray says:

    Great article! It’s shocking to see the impact of plastic pollution on earth.
    To end the plastic use, everyone of us should take a vow ‘No plastic’. Yes, change is not easy but not impossible.
    Let your mission be successful and your dream come true. Wish you very best. Jhinu Chhotray

  • Judy Pine says:

    Bali is dying from plastic pollution. Please see: http://WWW.PlasticPollutionSolution.ASIA. and FB: Bali Plastic Pollution Solution. It is my own initiative and all is ready for me to start selling advertising space on the back of the bag (so they can be handed out to tourists for FREE).. proceeds will go towards proper recycling bins for ‘local Balinese families’ (the WORST offenders!) as they cannot afford to pay for rubbish collections. See BALI’S TRASH RIVER on YouTube. ALL of this rubbish goes through the river systems out to Sea! Although everyone in Bali is concerned, after posting requests for anyone to assist me, NOT one person has offered.

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