Hong Kong-based filmmaker raising awareness of global trash flow problem

A Plastic Ocean looks at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an immense area of plastic pollution in the middle of the North Pacific, and says we need to rethink our relationship with disposable packaging if we are to address the root of the problem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 4:01pm

Craig Leeson knew that grim realities lay ahead when he signed on to make a film about the impact plastic is having on our planet. But the sight that faced him on the beaches of Lord Howe Island was beyond anything he expected.

“We’d walk along the beach in the morning and find hundreds of fledgling shearwaters dead,” Leeson says of his time on the volcanic remnant between Australia and New Zealand. “We started taking them back to the laboratory and inside the very first bird we opened up we found over 250 pieces of plastic in its stomach. It was when you could see these large pieces of plastic sticking through the bird’s stomach that you realised how painful this must have been for these animals.

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“And all that had happened was that their parents had fed them what to them smelled like food – these plastics had been in the water and had marine organisms growing on them. It’s pretty tough to see. You do fall into a great state of despair.”

The Australian-born Hong Kong-based filmmaker has for the past five years been travelling around the planet piecing together A Plastic Ocean after receiving a phone call from producer and friend Jo Ruxton, who had started to investigate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

First identified by American scientist/sailor Charles J. Moore in 1999, the patch is a massive gyre (or revolving current) of ocean trash, mainly comprising thousands upon thousands of pieces of plastic.

“It sounded like a good idea for a film because it would spectacular to shoot it – horrible of course but spectacular,” says Ruxton. “I thought there would be a good environmental message and a positive ending, so it would be great film to put out there. But by the time the plastic gets in the middle out there it is broken up into such tiny pieces – it’s mixed in with the plankton and you can’t see it. It’s a far more insidious problem that just having big pieces that you can scoop up.”

Leeson – who grew up on the beaches of Tasmania’s northwest coast and is a lifetime surfer – was stopped in his tracks by that news. While throughout his career as a journalist and filmmaker, he’d actively sought out issues related to the ocean and man’s impact on it, but had not given much thought to the effect plastic was having.

“I was shocked to hear what she had found,” says Leeson. “I was horrified. I’d like to think I am environmentally aware and I love the ocean, and here I was using this stuff without a care in the world. I’d been brainwashed into believing that plastic was disposable, as everyone has. I’d seen more of it in the water but it wasn’t until Jo called me that the dots were joined.”

Like Ruxton, he had heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – and thought that all it might take is for a team to get out there and pick all the plastic up. Not so.

“As it moves around and around, it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces and the smaller it gets the farther towards the start of the food chain it reaches,” says Leeson. “And from there they work their way up. It was far more insidious that I thought. If you see a large a large island of plastic you can just clear it up. But not this. You can’t even see it with the naked eye.”

Ruxton and Leeson made a pact to determine the extent of the problem globally, with the extensive fund-raising needed for both the film and a campaign to clean up the oceans driven by producer Sonjia Norman.

“We didn’t really know what we were going to find,” says Leeson. “We guessed that we were going to find something, but nothing near as bad as we found.”

A Plastic Ocean is ready now for release and the producers are hopeful of securing a video-on-demand distribution plan that will ensure it is seen by as wide an audience as possible.

The film follows Leeson and world champion free-diver Tanya Streeter as they travel the globe looking at both where plastic comes from, how we use it and where it ends up.

“They say human beings take 80 per cent of information through our eyes and 20 per cent through our ears, so it’s often just a case of seeing what is happening rather than hearing about it – and that’s what we hope this film will do,” says the now UK-based Ruxton, who says she hopes to take the film into schools around the world.

Ruxton had also had grown up by the ocean, back home near Cornwall and then in Singapore before landing in Hong Kong. After working as a marine scientist for 14 years with the global conservation group WWF in Hong Kong, and helping the organisation and the government introduce Hong Kong’s marine protection policies, Ruxton left town to work with the BBC on such noted television series as Blue Planet, alongside famed environmentalist David Attenborough.

The filmmakers believe the work needed to clear the planet of this waste has to be driven by governments, who must give people reason to care in terms of real economics.

“Germany has done it,” says Leeson. “They have introduced a closed loop system whereby if you sell plastic products you have to be responsible for collecting and recycling it. Monetise it. Incentivise it. It’s raw product that has value. So it’s about changing government policy and putting it back in the system.

“Through our own habits, we can make a difference, like refusing single-use plastic items, but if you do use them then ensure they are recycled properly. Track down the people who do this and if it costs a little extra, it’s worth it.”

The most important change, though, has to come from individuals and the way we live every moment of every day.

“I always thought that there must be one way to get this plastic out of the environment, one way to clear it all up,” says Leeson. “Unless it’s been incinerated, then everything single piece of plastic that’s been made since the 1950s is still on the planet in some form and if it’s been incinerated then turned into a chemical like dioxin that harms whatever ingests that.

“But there isn’t one answer. The first thing is we simply have to stop putting it in there. It doesn’t belong. It’s just not in nature’s plan so nature can’t do anything about it. It’s up to us.”

For more information, go to www.aplasticocean.film and www.plasticoceans.net.