Taking another look at the documentary that is still shaking us up.
“The ocean is my church, it’s my temple, it’s my mosque …”–A Plastic Ocean
The blue whale sets the stage for the greater scope of the 2016 documentary, A Plastic Ocean, directed by Craig Leeson, and started the Australian journalist’s journey into the ocean, where he found plastic instead. The blue whale, the narrator explains, processes matter in the ocean, but cannot differentiate between krill and plastic.
So begins the critical issue that makes A Plastic Ocean so galvanizing — the small day to day decisions which create an avalanche of effects. The small bag, the small straw, every small bit adding up over time. In their own words, the documentary “uncovers alarming truths about the consequences of our disposable lifestyle.”
The film takes the viewer into the deep sea — with deep sea divers and marine biologists and scientific researchers. They are not looking for whales this time. They are looking for plastic — and they find it. They find rubber tires, bits of metal, objects that do not belong on the ocean floor. Plastic bottles collect on the tides and gather in a school of wretched black and brown detritus. Every day, 8 million pieces of plastic are dumped in the ocean and sinks to the bottom, the film tells us.
The stats conveyed are sobering: 63 billion gallons of oil are pumped from the ground and turned into water bottles, and each person disposes 300 pounds of plastic. Only a fraction of this plastic is recycled. 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources. They are balloons floating in air, the plastic bits that end up flooding into the sewer, it all makes its way to the ocean — and from within the ocean, to the gyre.
The gyres — the closest one to us here at the Jersey Shore is known as the mighty Atlantic Conveyor that flows warm water from the Gulf of Mexico, up and around near the United Kingdom, circles up at the Arctic where salinity and temperature change sinks the older water into the polar depths and the newer water rises from below. The resulting “upwelling” brings upon its current a wealth of nutrients that feed our ocean at the Jersey Shore as the gyre turns, bringing that murky gray green water down to us. This gyre is part of the reason we enjoy cool ocean temperatures even in 100 degree weather and does not warm until August. We are swimming in water that has come from the north pole.
And it brings plastic with it.
The gyres carry this plastic. On the Atlantic coast we have seen pollution here and there, yet it is nothing compared to the mass of plastic that has been gathering in the Pacific gyre.
Researchers aboard the Kersei research vessel in the film are looking for this plastic hoard, termed the great Pacific Garbage Patch. Images that show huge floating masses of collected bags and junk has been concerning, but the documentary frames a more chilling reality: microplastics.
To glance across the ocean, it looks as it always has to our eyes — gray green with veins of white sea foam. The film changes our perception as they place a trawl in the murky ocean, a fine netting material capable of catching plastic the size of a pinhead. Rather than a large dramatic catch of dangerous plastic, an even more insidious demonstration of microplastic being consumed by marine life is caught on film. When the trawl is recovered, a thin film of these small bits of plastic is revealed as having been floating in the ocean moments before — and we had seen nothing.
The documentary takes us from the small to the great, and then to the interior: cutting open fish to see how the plastic persists in their bellies. Plastic attaches to toxins, they explain, and finds its home in the fatty tissues of other animals, which are then eaten by bigger animals. Including us. (Even small shellfish are being found with plastic inside them). These toxins accumulate, and interferes with the body’s other functions.
From there, the documentary takes us to Howe Island, where seabirds gather. Jennifer Lavers opens up the bellies of the deceased birds, where plastic has been collecting inside their bellies. She reveals she once found 276 pieces of plastic in the belly one bird, the most she’s ever found.
A Plastic Ocean does a fantastic job of both presenting our ugly plastics addiction contrasted with the beauty of the sea, powerfully reminding us of this ecosystem’s grand beauty and how we are threatening it. It aims for a call to action without even having to ask for one, but there’s inspiration to be found before the film ends. Others have taken up the cause, such as Shaun Frankson, who runs a “social recycling system” in Haiti to encourage people to collect plastic while earning an income.
That said, inspiration is not quite enough. One greets the close of the film confronted with the blue whale that began the journey, sending Craig Leeson to instead hunt down plastic and its consequences. And the consequences can’t help but make the viewer queasy.
A final closing flashes across the screen: Make a difference, think reusable, not disposable. The closing line is something our civilization has been struggling with long before this.
Maybe this time, we’ll get it right.
For more about the documentary A Plastic Ocean, visit plasticoceans.org
The Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation presented this viewing of the condensed version of A Plastic Ocean, and are working on statewide legislation to change how we deal with plastics in New Jersey. You can connect with them at the following links:
• Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/SurfriderJSC
• Twitter – https://twitter.com/SurfriderJSC or @SurfriderJSC
• Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/surfriderjerseyshore/
• Join Surfrider – http://www.surfrider.org/support-surfrider?source=CH27
• Local Chapter Website – https://jerseyshore.surfrider.org/