Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SteveReviews: A Plastic Ocean

Back in 2018 whilst gearing up for the transition from a Master’s Degree to a PhD, I sat down and watched a number of wildlife/conservation films from a multitude of platforms. My goal was to help reinvigorate my passion for the natural world, my drive to save wildlife and to relax. Whilst some of these films were heartwarming, some were quite distressing and A Plastic Ocean from 2016 was one of these. I still had those distressing scenes from Blue Planet II etched in my memory and so I thought it would be an interesting endeavour to watch how an independent filmmaker navigated and portrayed the issue of oceanic plastic pollution.

The film itself is now available to watch on Netflix (seems I’m pointing a lot of you their way at the moment). Like with most works of passion, A Plastic Ocean is the result of a four-year project run by Jo Ruxton who has previously worked for the BBC on the Blue Planet saga. Joining her for this monumental challenge were Craig Leeson (a journalist) and Tanya Streeter (a freediver and environmentalist). If it wasn’t already clear by the title of this film, it’s aim is to highlight plastic pollution in the oceans by raising awareness about what we have already done and what we can do about it. Since it’s invention, plastics have become an ubiquitous part of our everyday life that are seemingly impossible to escape. Very few people think of the environmental impacts after they’ve disposed of single-use plastics.

As well as the effects on wildlife, A Plastic Ocean also looks at how plastic pollution is impacting communities that rely on the oceans for their livelihoods. Streeter visits Tuvalu (north of Fiji in the Pacific Ocean) where the tiny nation is drowning in it’s own plastic waste. With no facilities or infrastructure to be able to deal with the increasing mountains of waste, it is just piling up. Some people have turned to burning plastic as a fuel, despite the health hazards associated with it as there is simply no other option. Leeson has a similar experience in the Philippines where children comb the coastline for recyclable items of plastic so that they can sell in order to buy food. It’s this aspect of things that really hit me hard, for too long have we ignored the effects of our waste on both people and animals alike.

Current estimates predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than there is fish. At the moment, plastic already outnumbers plankton 2:1 so unless we act now, these predictions may very well become fact within my lifetime. As with most environmental films, there are a number of moving scenes of wildlife from blue whales to the tiniest fish. Every organism in that entire ecosystem is at risk from our waste, an ecosystem that spans 70% of the planet. There are glimpses of hope among the chaos, we all have the power to make a difference.

The worse quality of plastic is that it never breaks down, it just gets turned into smaller and smaller pieces becoming microplastics and then nanoplastics. During this process it can release chemicals and affect the way waves form. The film picks up on this and also explains how plastic pollution gets dispersed around the world’s oceans by currents before being trapped in gyres. The most familiar of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which isn’t actually a visible collection of bottles, toilet seats and plastic garden chairs. Instead it is smog of microplastics that are impossible to remove. Worryingly enough, the effects of such features is not entirely known but the evidence so far suggests that they are lethal to ocean life with knock-on effects for the animals that eat contaminated fish, including us.

I think one of the reasons why the ocean has been neglected for so long is because it is out of sight, out of mind. For many it seems distant (I see this on a daily basis despite the fact I’m living 5 miles from the coast) and so vast that our individual actions should have a negligible effect at best. We’ve become disconnected from so many aspects of our daily lives such as food production and waste management that it is easy to see why some people struggle to understand what impacts their lifestyles are having on the oceans. As we know from numerous examples, people don’t like being told that they have to change. A Plastic Ocean does a great job of showing people why so they can make those behavioural and lifestyle changes by themselves.

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