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‘A Plastic Ocean,’ screened in Malibu, pleads for action

Freediver Tanya Streeter takes audiences to waters throughout the world in “A Plastic Ocean.” Plastic Oceans Foundation
Barbara Burke, Freelance Reporter
7:40 am PDT June 15, 2017

World Oceans Day is intended to recognize the fragility of oceans and to highlight both the often negative impact mankind has on them and their ever-increasing precarious existence. 

This year’s theme for World Oceans Day focused on plastic pollution, an insidious form of pollution that is escalating at an alarming rate, imperiling food chains including our own, and threatening to irreversibly harm — if not outright destroy — marine ecosystems worldwide. 

One reading this article might think that characterization is histrionic, exaggerated, and unduly pessimistic.  

However, at the viewing of “A Plastic Ocean,” an environmental documentary screened on World Oceans Day on June 8 at the Malibu City Hall Civic Theater, the picture was clear: Plastic pollution’s threat to the viability of the oceans and of all living beings in the food chain is terrifyingly real. 

“A Plastic Ocean,” a documentary eight years in the making, begins with beautifully filmed panoramic views of the gentleness and great expanse of oceans and the animals that live in them. Herds of true blue whales and pygmy blue whales, dolphins, and other marine life swim and float in the vast, ethereal water worlds that make up our oceans.  

The audience admires the beauty of the vast ocean and vast depths under it, taking in the wonder of this relatively unexplored universe that, the documentary explains, covers just under 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and holds approximately 96.5 percent of the Earth’s water.

The setting emanated the phenomenal peace, harmony and pristine pureness that only Mother Nature can design.  

The documentary is riveting, both visually and audibly. Viewers watch the first-known filming of a juvenile pygmy blue whale swimming, freely floating gracefully and innocently living his life. They watch spellbound as world champion freediver Tanya Streeter swims effortlessly between the gentle giants, thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface.     

“There has not been any fishing here for 30 years because of a civil war,” a scientist said, as the documentary features the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Sri Lanka. “The beaches have been closed.”  

However, all is not well in this distant, remote, unpopulated ocean habitat. It is not well at all.

The depiction of the idyllic, pastoral setting segues to footage of a gorgeous, brawny Brutus whale gasping desperately as it lays dying on a beach because it swallowed six square meters of plastic sheeting which blocked his digestive tract. 

It is a harrowing scene. However, such tragic occurrences happen all the time. 

It is the reality of the ocean. It is the fault of man.

“A Plastic Ocean” carefully recounts the horrors sea animals face and how powerless they are to defend themselves. The film explains that the way the whales feed is to power through the ocean with their mouths wide open, fishing for krill. Unfortunately, plastic floating in the water is indistinguishable from the krill. 

“By 2050, the manufacture of plastic products will triple worldwide,” the film informs. “Plastic will coat our land and oceans like a disease.”

“A Plastic Ocean” is the work of journalist and ocean explorer Craig Leeson. He and a team of research scientists traveled to 20 destinations across the world to document the horrific, devastating consequences of mankind’s use and disposal of plastics.  

The film depicts the devastating consequences of plastic pollution in the waters off Emu Bay, Tasmania, Australia, in the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Waterway, and to the bottom of the ocean off the Marseilles coast. At some places, there are documented incidents where there is a one-to-two plastic to plankton ratio. 

The science behind the travesty is explained in easy terms. The film notes that five gyres (large circulating ocean currents) cover our planet.  Plastics collect in the ocean and are broken down into micro-particulates that enter the food chain, bio-accumulate, and attract toxins like a magnet, ultimately making their way into the muscle tissue of ocean creatures that larger animals eat. People eat the larger animals, making for a pernicious food cycle. The dangers of such toxins in the body of any lifeform can cause cancer, affect the ability to procreate, and impair vital organs.  

The film interviews inhabitants of Fiji, where native people burn plastic for cooking because it is cheaper than other fuel sources. The toxic effect to the eyes and vital organs demonstrates the dangers in doing so. 

The next stop focuses on parts of the Philippines and depicts a haunting life for many families who live and farm among the swill of dump sites with mountain-sized heaps of plastics, flies buzzing about, disease-infested waters providing the only water source and half-clad children playing all around. 

The film segues to scenes showing the effects of the 2012 plastic disaster near Hong Kong, where Typhoon Vicente caused shipping containers containing Sinopic’s polypropylene pellets to spill into the sea and to collect on beaches in the density of snow.  

The documentary has harrowing scenes in which a scientist cuts open the guts of birds that died from ingesting plastics. 

Sea turtles cannot swim because they are bogged down from ingesting plastic. 

Skin biopsies from dolphins and whales off the Italian coastline document the bioaccumulation of deadly toxins caused by plastic pollution.

The people who live on the Polynesian coral atoll of Tuvalu, one of the most remote places on the planet, are literally choking on plastic debris. Borrow pits where plastic are deposited are the only place for the less wealthy inhabitants to live. Like the people affected by plastic pollution in the Philippines, in Tuvalu, birth rates are down, and cancer, emphysema and other diseases are on the rise because toxic plastic particulates leech estrogenic chemicals into the food sources and ultimately pervade the human body. 

“The plastic is destroying our paradise and I want my kids to be healthy,” a Tuvalu mother says to a tearful Streeter.

In that telling moment, two mothers who live worlds away acknowledge and grieve the fact that the problem of plastic pollution presents a very real and present burden and an imperiling threat for future generations. 

However, the film is not all negative.  

It segues to discussing recycling and bioremedial solutions. Germany mandates circular product chains. The U.S. Navy employs pyrolysis, a process of incinerating plastic waste, causing it to revert to its original non-toxic components. There are solutions for lessening the production of virgin plastics, a solution that seems imminently sensible when one considers that the average use of a plastic before disposal is less than 15 minutes.

“If the whales could talk to us, they would ask ‘what were you thinking?’” Leeson says. “If I could talk to the parents of that juvenile whale, I would say ‘on behalf of humanity I am so sorry for what were are doing.’” 

“A Plastic Ocean” convinces that the human species must not only apologize to the parents of that juvenile pygmy blue whale. They must act — and do so now.  

The evening ended with a public discussion led by Malibu Mayor Skylar Peak and Julie Andersen, executive director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation.

Attendees discussed the plastic invading the coral reefs off upper Broad Beach, the accumulation of garbage on Malibu’s beaches, and the pernicious effects of using plastic bottles. Peak noted that efforts are being made to limit the use of plastics in Malibu and to improve garbage collection, as well as to find ways for recycling centers to operate in Malibu.

As the evening drew to a close, every person knew that although the film ended, the local and global conversation shouldn’t. Plastic pollution is a vast problem with feasible solutions if only man rallies, one community at a time. 

For more information, visit www.plasticoceans.org or contact Andersen at julie@plasticoceans.org