By JJ Waters
There are those things in life that cannot be “unseen” and you are forever changed once you see them. Things that move you. To action. There are those WOW moments of images that stay with you forever in a wondrous way: For me, the first time I saw a coral reef, brilliant with color and teeming with life and activity… and the hatching of a baby sea turtle scrambling across the sand to the sea. And then there are those painful images: the beach, on the island where I live, covered in oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill, a giant loggerhead sea turtle strangled by the line of a castaway marker buoy.
These images shaped the way I saw the world and are what made me what I am: an environmentalist.
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve seen something (good or bad), that really compelled you to take action? It happened to me after watching Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it was not good. Or maybe it was.
Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an eye opening documentary by Angela Sun, that takes the viewer through her journey to discover the truth behind the “myth” of a giant Plastic Garbage Island somewhere in the Pacific, and what she discovers is much worse than she imagined.
She begins by giving us a brief plastics history lesson and reminds us that every single bit of plastic ever manufactured still exists somewhere on our planet today. (You can throw it away, um, but, where exactly is “away”?) That thought is daunting in itself, but she goes on to SHOW us what she finds on a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific. She soon discovers that this once pristine tropical paradise has become a toxic dump of hundreds of tons of (our) discarded plastic that has infiltrated every part of this fragile ecosystem.
She shows us stark visceral images of how larger plastic pieces trap sea turtles, seals, sea lions, dolphin, other marine life, and how discarded fishing nets become aquatic tumbleweed killing-machines, dragging along the reefs, ripping out the coral heads. Although the sun and the sea break down some of the plastic into tiny fragments, it is still there. Albatrosses, other species of birds, and fish mistake the smaller pieces for food, which either kill them or poison them, along with everything else up the food chain.
So, what can an Albatross tell us about the health of our oceans? Apparently a lot. Midway Atoll is the breeding and nesting ground for hundreds of thousands of Albatrosses that travel thousands of miles across oceans, skimming the surface for food along the way. Plastic debris, lighters, toys, bottle caps, pens, toothbrushes, Styrofoam, printer cartridges, fishing lures, monofilament… the list is as endless as the plastic products themselves. And the albatrosses scoop them up either inadvertently, or mistaking them for food. It is estimated that 98% of the Albatrosses on Midway Atoll have plastic in their bellies and that they feed their chicks 5 tons of plastic a year. 200,000 of the 500,000 chicks birthed each year die due to ingestion of plastics. Choking, dehydration, starvation and toxicity are the causes of death.
And that brings me to the lesson. From the dead Albatross. In her documentary, Sun shows us footage of the vast remains of albatrosses, scattered across the atoll, each a perfectly outlined body of bones, with a “pile” of plastic debris in the center. In fact, in most, there was more plastic than bones, a haunting and unbelievable image of what their life and death must have been like. And for me, it became an image that could not be unseen.
And here’s the lesson: Every single plastic item ever produced still exists on this planet, in some form, even those that have been recycled. Plastics are part of our everyday life in virtually everything that we do. Plastics have changed the way that we live; and don’t get me wrong, I get that. But we have to change the way we see, buy, use and dispose of plastic products. I always thought I was doing my part until I saw this film. I realize that there is a lot more that needs to be done and it starts with me.
Our existence depends on the health of the ocean. The health of the ocean depends on us.
Angela Sun shows us, in her film, many ways in which each one of us can make a difference. Here are a few more:
- The 4 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. REFUSE plastic grocery bags (bring your own cloth bags to the market) plastic single use bottles, (use refillable bottles) straws, plastic wrapped veggies and fruit. REDUCE where you can; if you can’t cut it out, cut it down. REUSE items that you would throw away and buy reusable items instead of single use. RECYCLE as much plastic as you can and when you do buy plastic, look for that which is recyclable
- Never throw away fishing line in the water, and don’t throw it in the garbage either. Recycle it! Many states now have recycling bins at bait and tackle shops, or you can build your own.
- Get involved! Volunteer for area clean-up efforts, Spread the word. Take the Plastic Paradise Pledge:
Fish and Wildlife Service “The Plastic Problem on Midway Atoll” www.fws.gov/midway_atoll_NWP_cigarette_lighters