Scientists have warned about the dangers of plastic pollution and microplastics in the environment for a while now. But most people still aren’t convinced of the link between carelessly discarding a water bottle and damage in the seas. After all, plastic in the ocean doesn’t have the powerful symbolism of nuclear plants or oil spills: most of it is below the waves, often invisible to the naked eye.
A new documentary feature film, A Plastic Ocean, wants to change all that. It follows several popular films on the oceans that have successfully shifted attitudes and even shaped legislation. The End of the Linetriggered a wave of media attention on unsustainable fishing practices, while SeaWorld finally agreed to halt its orca breeding programme after the “Blackfish effect”.
I’m a media sociologist specialising in science communication. As part of my research I recently spoke to the movie’s producer, former BBC Blue Planet producer Jo Ruxton. She discusses the film, and her hopes that it will create a cultural shift in public perceptions and behaviour concerning plastic pollution.
Lesley Henderson: You’ve always been interested in the ocean through your work as a filmmaker and have spent several years living on islands around the world. Was there something specific that prompted you to create this film?
Jo Ruxton: I’d heard about the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a floating continent twice the size of Texas and ten metres deep. I started looking into it but couldn’t find any pictures or anything on Google Earth. I went out to the centre of the North Pacific to look for it on an expedition with scientists and volunteers and but we still couldn’t see it.
Then we started to do surface plankton trawls about 400 miles off San Francisco just to see what was in there. The closer we got to the centre the more plastic we found. Every trawl was coming up jam-packed with plastics but when you actually looked out on the water you could hardly see anything. There were a few floating bits around but it certainly wasn’t a ten metre deep continent.
I talked to the scientists and found out that plastic becomes very brittle in sea water because it’s subjected to sunlight, waves and salt and it takes about 20 years to get from the coast to the centre. It breaks up until it’s smaller and smaller and now of course it’s mixing with the plankton. That to me was a much more insidious story because if it’s mixing with the plankton it’s clearly getting into the food chain which can’t be good for the plankton and the fish that are feeding on it.
A group of sperm whales recently stranded in Germany were starving – their stomachs were full of plastic. Christian Charisius/EPA
LH: So were there particular visual challenges of filming microplastics? How did you overcome these?
JR: It’s the images that sell a film, if you don’t have those, you’re dead in the water. So we thought, what about the effects on big charismatic animals, the baleen whales that feed on plankton? We used interesting scientists: seeing a woman walk along the side of the jetty with a crossbow slung over her shoulder and finding out she’s a professor about to go and shoot dolphins to take blubber samples makes you sit up and watch.
Another scientist was doing night dives and trawls looking at lantern fish travelling up from the depths and finding pieces of plastic in their stomachs. The visual images of squid hunting at night in torch light are quite special. To get people interested it was a case of finding the right animals, getting the images, and getting some fun stuff in there including “boys toys” like a submersible.
LH: How did you approach presenting the scientific information about the risks to human health posed by microplastics?
JR: We used lay people (champion free diver Tanya Streeter and journalist Craig Leeson) to ask the questions. Though we’ve really simplified the science, every statement we make has been backed by peer-reviewed papers.
Tanya Streeter checking the health of a reef in Fiji. David Jones, Author provided
This link between chemicals leaching out of plastics and plastics attracting chemicals was particularly difficult to explain. Tuvalu was the most important sequence: here was a place drowning under its own plastic waste. They’re just burning it, and kids are playing with bonfires as they come home from school. We filmed a family group of 30 and five had cancer and two more had died of it in the previous 18 months. We know that furans and dioxins have been linked to cancer and we know that those gases are produced when we burn plastic but no one’s linked the two.
LH: In the film you show deposit schemes in Germany where people receive money for recycling plastic bottles – was part of your aim to try to create value for plastic?
JR: The movie has for key messages: it’s about health, value, charismatic animals and it’s about the environment. I care about all four but even if people don’t care about their own health they might care about money, if they don’t care about people and the environment then they care about money.
LH: Why a feature documentary film rather than other forms of media or education?
JR: There are a lot of short films on the internet but I think there is now more of an appetite for big environmental films. The End of the Line brought huge change, the whole Hugh’s Fish Fight changed policy in Europe, Blackfish too – it’s not just the tree huggers who are going to see it. An Inconvenient Truth was basically a power point presentation but was powerful enough to get a lot of people sitting up and thinking.
So why not have one about plastic pollution? It is a growing concern, we’re finding out more and more about it and perhaps this is the way forward. I can go and give lectures to 100 people at a time but a successful film can reach many more people.
LH: How do you envisage that audiences will engage with A Plastic Ocean?
JR: I think it will be an eye opener. One of the reasons environmental films are so hard to get commissioned is because they’re very doom and gloom. It’s people who already care who come and watch them and they come out feeling like they’ve been punched in the stomach and guilty every time they eat a fish or start the car up. But the last 20 minutes of this film is dedicated to “what we can do” in terms of legislation, technology, or changes in our behaviour.
LH: So what you’re trying to do is trigger a cultural change?
JR: Yes cultural change is probably the biggest thing along with legislation. If there is an oil spill it’s all hands on deck to clean it up and restore the habitat. If plastic was reclassified as hazardous that’s exactly what we would be doing: restoring habitats and doing something positive with all that plastic.