Sky News has launched an Ocean Rescue campaign with an excellent 45-minute film that puts the serious plastic problem into perspective.
“The ocean where life on Earth began is being turned into a synthetic soup.” With these words, Sky News science correspondent Thomas Moore embarks on a journey to explore the immense problem of plastic pollution. The result is a 45-minute documentary film called “A Plastic Tide,” released January 25 as part of Sky News’ Ocean Rescue campaign.
Moore starts in Mumbai, India, where a city beach once used for swimming and playing is now completely covered in plastic garbage. Surprisingly, it’s not from direct littering, but from the ocean tide; every day brings a fresh layer of garbage, which could come from anywhere on the planet.
From there, Moore heads to London to visit the city sewer system, where plastic waste such as syringes, cotton buds, sanitary products, and the omnipresent wet wipes cause serious blockages and are flushed out into the Thames River. (People think ‘flushable’ wet wipes will dissolve, but they’re made of plastic and will last for years.) Volunteers haul 500 tons of trash out of the Thames each year, most of it plastic.
It’s sobering to think that no beach or shoreline is unaffected by this pollution. Due to the ocean currents and waterways that flow into those oceans, plastic waste that’s tossed in Australia or Japan could easily end up in Scotland. This is the tragic case of Arrochar, a small harbour town at the end of Scotland’s sea lochs that receives endless amounts of garbage on its beaches. Tourists, whose numbers are shrinking as a result, wonder why the locals live in such filth, assuming that the plastic-strewn beach is the result of littering, when it’s really a matter of currents.
There was a time in the mid-nineteenth century when scientists thought plastic would bring tremendous benefits – and it did, in some ways. But the problem is not with the plastics that make our lives better, such as medical supplies and hygiene. The problem lies with single-use plastics, or those which are thrown out within a year of production.
Approximately 320 million tons of plastic are manufactured annually, but 40 percent of this is single-use items. Only 5 percent of plastics are effectively recycled, which means that the remaining 95 percent – almost all the plastic ever made – remains on the planet.
Much of it ends up the oceans and breaks down, over decades of sunlight and pounding waves, into microplastics that measure 5 millimeters or less. These are ingested by shrimp, plankton, fish, birds, turtles, and other sea animals, creating an insidious cycle of contamination that we’re only just starting to understand.
Profession Colin Janssen from the University of Ghent in Belgium estimates that the average Belgian, who enjoys mussels and other seafood, eats up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year. Our children could eat even more, with estimates as high as 750,000 microparticles per year by the end of this century.
Janssen’s studies of mussels have found that microplastics do not always stay in the stomach. They can be absorbed into the bloodstream, which could have frightening repercussions for human health. Janssen told The Telegraph:
“Where do [microplastics] go? Are they encapsulated by tissue and forgotten about by the body, or are they causing inflammation or doing other things? Are chemicals leaching out of these plastics and then causing toxicity? We don’t know and actually we do need to know.”
Moore pays a visit to Dr. Jan Van Fragenen in the Netherlands, who performs post-mortems on seabirds who have died from plastic ingestion. The thought of countless birds dying from startvation, caused by an artificial sense of satiety brought on by plastic lodged in their stomachs, is awful; and the quantity of plastic in their bodies is horrifying.
Moore watches Fragenen remove 18 pieces of plastic from one fulmar’s stomach weighing just over 0.5 gram. Scaled to a human, this would be the equivalent of a lunchbox of trash. The bigger the bird, the bigger the pieces are. Fragenen showed an albatross whose stomach contained a toothbrush, a fishing line floater, and a golf ball, among other things.
The film does an excellent job of depicting the severity of the problem and of providing various viewpoints from all around the globe, emphasizing our interconnectedness and shared dependence on the health of our oceans. It ends on a hopeful note, depicting beach cleanup activist Afroz Shah hard at work in Mumbai. After 62 weeks of cleaning with a team of volunteers, the beach that Moore initially visited has reappeared from beneath its layer of trash.
“Cleaning up rubbish is addictive,” Shah says with a grin, and his volunteers nod enthusiastically. The group insists that the mindset is gradually changing as they educate people and set an example. “It may take a generation before we’re used to not throwing plastic away,” but Shah is certain that day will come.
It cannot come soon enough.
Watch "A Plastic Tide" online for free. See trailer below.