The plastic plague: Can our oceans be saved from environmental ruin?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has become the stuff of legend. This hotspot of marine waste, created by the spiral currents of the North Pacific Gyre, has been described as a floating trash island the size of Russia. But when filmmaker Jo Ruxton visited the location, she found clear blue water, and a deep-rooted problem.

“If you were diving, it looked like you had just jumped out of a plane,” says Ruxton. “But our nets were coming up completely choked with plastic pieces.”
The pieces were small enough to mingle with plankton, the tiny organisms at the base of the food web that support many fish and whale species. Researchers have found 750,000 microplastic pieces per square kilometer in the Garbage Patch, and the marine life is riddled with them. “This was much more insidious than a huge mountain of trash which could be physically removed,” says Ruxton. “You can’t remove all the tiny pieces.”
Ruxton visited the site while producing the film “A Plastic Ocean,” in association with NGO Plastic Oceans, which documents the impact of half a century of rampant plastic pollution. Around eight million tons of plastic enter the marine environment each year, and the figure is set to rise. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that 311 million tons of plastic were produced in 2014, which will double within 20 years, and projects that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
Plastic is a remarkably durable material, with a potential lifespan of centuries. It does not biodegrade, but photodegrades under sunlight, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, which attract toxins and heavy metals as they travel on the tides. Plastic is pulled together in the powerful, circling currents of gyres, but it is also found in Arctic ice, washing up on remote islands, and infesting tourist destinations.
Ruxton’s crew visited dozens of locations without escaping the plastic plague. They found it covering the Mediterranean Sea bed, the shorelines of Bermuda, and Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, a World Heritage site that has been severely affected. Tuvalu was once a pristine beauty spot. But the island lacks the infrastructure to dispose of the plastic it imports, which has become a serious hazard for the local population.
“People were just throwing plastic outside,” says Ruxton. “They were drowning in the stuff, and trying to burn it. There was a constant pall of black smoke, and people were always exposed to the gases that come out when you burn plastic, including two very scary ones that have been linked to cancer, dioxins and furans.”
From a group of 30 islanders featured in the film, five had cancer and two have died in the last 18 months, Ruxton says. She is raising funds to research the health impact of burning plastic.

Jo Ruxton wants to see greater responsibilities placed on plastic producers, such as in Germany where strict recycling quotas forced companies to use less plastic. Similar quotas will soon be introduced across the European Union. But the filmmaker is encouraged by the increased focus on the issue in recent years, and is confident that greater public awareness can have a significant impact.
“If people realize how easy it is to make changes, and if they understand the consequences of not doing so, they want to change,” she says.
Ruxton stresses that time is short. If the culture does not change imminently, more communities will face a grim fate. “We’re at a tipping point,” she says. “I see Tuvalu as a snapshot of the future for all of us if we don’t get this addiction under control.”
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