Laura chats with A Plastic Ocean film maker Craig Leeson on how plastics in our oceans are impacting our environment and health.
The Plastic Free July movement is sweeping Australia and for very good reason.
Our obsession with plastics, particularly single-use plastics, is causing devastating impacts to our oceans, our land, our wildlife and us.
If you’ve ever wondered just what kind of impact, and the degree of this impact, plastics are having on our environment then today you’re in for a real treat. Actually, today may not be a treat at all, because my guest has some pretty alarming information to share with us all.
Craig Leeson is an award-winning journalist, television presenter and filmmaker. His debut cinematic feature film, “A Plastic Ocean”, which he wrote, directed and executive produced, hit the coveted no.1 spot for documentaries on iTunes in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada and is listed globally on Netflix with the backing of Leo DiCaprio.
What’s more, Sir David Attenborough has described A Plastic Ocean as the most important film of our time.
If you haven’t yet watched A Plastic Ocean, I have a strong feeling it will be top of your “must watch” list after today.
I’m chatting with Craig about what he discovered and learnt while filming A Plastic Ocean, what changes he’s since made to his own lifestyle and what he believes needs to happen at a global and local level to stem the flow of plastics into our oceans.
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First of all, I just want to say thank you so much for chatting today. I’ve been really excited about this chat, even a little bit nervous, especially after watching the film and seeing the length and the ends of the earth that you’ve gone to capture the message and share with everyone. I’m deeply honoured to be talking with you today, Craig, so thank you so much.
Thanks for having me. It’s always great to talk about the film, and try and get that message that it carries to as many people as possible.
It sure does. Now, before we get into the film, I’m really keen to take a look at and hear about where it all began, because I know that you’re a journalist and a reporter by background, but how do you go from writing for a regional, Tasmanian newspaper, to writing and filming an international documentary about plastics in our oceans?
I think the easiest way to answer that is hard work. It takes a lot of work to perfect or perfect your abilities in any job or in any medium, and I just had a desire, I think, to try as many mediums as possible, and see which ones would carry my voice the most, and that was what was important to me. After I worked at newspapers, I looked at radio, and worked in radio for many years, and then television was a natural progression, but the problem I find with television news was that we’d spend an awful amount of time, a day, two days, sometimes a week, filming a story, for just a minute-and-a-half package that would go to air. Then it would be gone, and never seen again. I guess I felt a sense of frustration that the story wasn’t being told and retold and people couldn’t reference it in future. Documentaries became a natural progression for me, and I found that not only can you tell the story a lot better, because you’ve got a lot more space to do it, but also that documentaries are put into libraries and they’re recorded on tape, and nowadays on hard drives. You’ve got a historical reference that people can access and go back to time and time again. Documentaries, for me, were about storytelling.
Great. Where did the interest for a sustainable themed documentary come from? Because I know as a journalist you’ve reported on all different kinds of stories, so when did you decide that you really wanted to share this message of sustainability and the environment and what’s happening with the oceans?
I have always been interested in environment, since I was a kid, because I grew up on the beach, and that’s where I’d spend most of my time, exploring the rock pools, and digging through sand to find crabs and playing in the ocean, and watching fish. As a result of that, my parents’ house became a bit of an animal sanctuary, because every time an animal got injured, we’d bring them in and nurse them. Neighbours started doing that, and pretty soon we had wallaby’s and ducks and wandering albatross and all sorts of animals in our backyard, we nursed back to health and then either set free or ended up spending the rest of their lives with us.
I guess I had a connection to nature, to ecology. It made me very interested in it. Therefore, I’ve gravitated more towards stories that have an environmental point to it, because it’s just, it’s something that interests me. When Plastic Oceans came along, and the producer, Jo Ruxton, who’s idea of the project was, came to me and asked me if I knew anything about plastic in the ocean, and would I be interested in taking a look at it, then it was something that piqued my interest.
Oh, brilliant. Let’s move on to talk about A Plastic Ocean now. Would you mind sharing with our listeners exactly what is happening in our oceans right now, as far as plastics are concerned?
What is happening in our oceans right now as far as plastic is concerned?
What’s happening is something that we’ve never seen before, and that the ocean as a very, previously a very well-balanced machine, hasn’t seen before either. That’s why it has become a problem, because not only are we as humans not able to deal with this product, but neither is the environment, because it’s never seen it before, so it can’t break it down and get rid of it like it does with other substances that are on the planet.
Because of our plastic lifestyle and this year we’re going to make 300 million tonnes of plastic, that’s an enormous amount of plastic, and half of that is plastic that we call single use plastic, so that’s plastic we use once, and we throw away. The wrapping off a biscuit box that you might take off that box, throw it in the bin. The plastic bottle, as soon as you’ve finished with your water in there, you throw that in the bin. The plastic straw that you may use out of your drink. All of that plastic has an average life span of 12 minutes. It’s then put into our waste disposal system, but unfortunately our waste disposal system can’t dispose of plastic. It’s the most durable product ever made, which makes us wonder how we possibly succumbed to the marketing ploy that this stuff was disposable, because every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet in some way, shape or form.
This year, 150 million tonnes of single use plastic, so that’s stuff that we’re going to throw away, we’re going to put into landfill. The problem with plastic is, there is no away. It breaks up into smaller pieces, it flows into our water table systems, into our rivers, and it eventual ends up in the ocean, and this year we’re seeing eight million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans now every year.
When it enters the ocean, 70% of it sinks, and because it sinks to the bottom, it’s no light, and no oxygen, so it is unable to break down, or break up, so it stays there in its original form, but the rest of it does break up, and we say break up, because it breaks up into smaller pieces. It doesn’t break down and go away completely. You’re getting these micro plastics, as we call them. As they get smaller, due to wave action and sunlight and oxygen erosion, they get further down into the food chain, and that’s where we see the problems really start to make themselves known.
How Are Humans Impacted by Toxins from Plastic In The Food Web of the Ocean?
Let’s just chat about now what exactly happens when it enters the food chain. Would you briefly just take us through the delicate food web of the ocean? What feeds on what, and how humans aren’t immune to the accumulation of toxins in the food chain, that are obviously stemming from plastics entering the oceans?
That’s a really good question. Basically, the food chain operates from the very base, which are plankton, and they are the base of the food chain for marine organisms, other than algae, and when plastic breaks up into smaller pieces, it means it’s able to be eaten by smaller animals. Now, that means that if it’s really tiny, microfibers, it is getting down to the plankton stage, at the very base of the food chain, and we’ve actually got footage in the film where we watch plankton eat micro plastics. It’s the first time we’ve been able to prove that we’re getting this stuff into the base of the food chain.
What happens then is that plankton is eaten by a small fish like a sardine. That sardine’s eaten by a bigger fish. The bigger fish is eaten by a tuna. Tuna goes up to the top of the food chain, and who eats tuna? Us.
You get in a bioaccumulation, but it’s not just the plastics that are bio accumulating in the fish. Oils, toxins, run-off from land, from agriculture run-off, mining run-off, all these things that enter the oceans that carry toxins from our, what we do on land, enter into the ocean, and these toxins like to attach to something that’s not water, because they don’t like water molecules. They look for other objects that have big molecules that aren’t related to water, and plastic is the perfect sponge. These toxins attach to the plastic, and turn the plastic into these even more dangerous, toxic pills.
When a fish consumes the plastic, the toxins that are attached to the plastic, because they prefer oils and fatty tissue, they release from the plastic and they settle into the fatty tissue of the fish, and that bioaccumulates. Once again, you’ve got bigger fish eating the smaller fish, that bio accumulates all the toxins that the fish before it ate, and then so and on and so on, it goes up the food chain. What we’re finding now is that humans are building up these toxins, which were getting from our seafood, and from our ocean food sources. But also, conversely, on the other side, we’re getting it now in the food that we package, and the drinks that we package. That’s plastic as well, so pretty much, if you’re consuming food that either comes from the ocean or come from plastic packaging, you’re consuming plastic toxins, and toxins that enter the ocean.
Yeah, that’s really alarming, and I guess, obviously, there’s a lot of different health impacts of consuming plastics too. I guess the most widely reported is the endocrine disrupting nature of plastics, and how they can mimic hormones in our body, and lead on to a multitude of diseases, really, isn’t it?
That’s right. We’re only just starting to understand what those diseases are, and what levels of plastic chemicals and toxins that are associated with it we need in our system to cause that to change. We do know that it’s causing cancer. We do know that it’s causing, as you say, endocrine disruptive disorders in kidneys and in other organs that rely on those hormones, and it’s mimicking our own body hormones, and replacing what our body hormones are supposed to do. We’re now seeing evidence of everything up to gender dysmorphia, because of the estrogenic activity of a lot of these chemicals.
In America, they did a study in 2003, and they found that 92.7% of every American has plastic or chemicals associated with plastic in their bodies, and their children, between the ages of six and eleven, have twice as much, and the reason that kids are starting off with even more than their parents have built up over their years is because when a mother in today’s world is pregnant, and gives birth, she downloads all of the toxins, all of the nutrients in her body, to breastfeed her baby. That includes the plastic chemicals, that includes the toxins that are attached to chemicals, so babies automatically get this toxic download before they even start life, and then of course they’re introduced to plastic items almost instantly, from plastic diapers to the nipples on the sippy cups and the bottles, all the way through there’s a sudden exposure to these chemicals, so they begin adding to what they’ve already been given from their parents.
Yeah. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. Thanks for sharing where the current state of things are at. I guess the most alarming thing is that, this whole situation is predicted to get an awful lot worse, I guess with the world’s population increasing by another 30% in the next 30 years, as we approach ten billion people walking this planet.
If we continue living as we’re currently living, what do you think our oceans will look like by 2050? And more importantly, what impact will this have on life as we know it?
Firstly, we can’t survive without the oceans. They provide from plankton, to every second breath you take comes from plankton in the oceans, It provides 60% of our protein food sources globally. The Earth shouldn’t really be called Earth. It should be called ocean, because 70% of earth is actually oceans. When they stop working, then the survival of every species on this planet will stop also.
If we keep going the way we are, then the ecosystems within the oceans are going to find it very difficult to cope. What we’re seeing is plastic causing damage to many marine animals, from whales, who ingest plastic, particularly baleen whales that filter small fish and krill, because they can’t tell the difference between krill and plastic, so we’re seeing a lot of whale deaths around the world now, and when necropsy is performed, what they’re pulling out of their stomachs are kilograms and kilograms of plastic. Turtles are being killed in their thousands, and we illustrate that in the film because a plastic bag to a turtle looks like food, which to a turtle is jellyfish.
Turtles are under threat because of this plastic. Sea birds. Jennifer Lagus tells us that 96% of all sea birds have or will ingest plastic in their lifetime. That’s a major problem, because, as you see in the film, there are a lot of deaths now caused to baby birds before they even have a chance to start their life. This is a major concern. We need to protect the oceans, we need to make sure the operate efficiently and the ecosystems are balanced, and there are a lot of issues that are interwoven with plastic issues, such as overfishing, and ocean acidification, coral bleaching, all of these problems are coming to a head, and they’re warning us now that we have to make change, because if we don’t, we’re threatening our own survival.
We’ll have a catastrophic collapse of an ecosystem, which impacts us. Totally.
Back on what you were just saying about the birds, that was one particular footage in the film that really spoke to me, with the migratory sea birds, on Lord Howe Island. I’ve never gone there, but I know people that have, and it’s reported to be like a very pristine place.” But you still see the impact of plastics on wildlife in a seemingly pristine environment.
Yeah. That’s amazing. Lord Howe Island is a national park. It’s 500 kilometres east of Sydney. It is the southernmost tip of the Great Barrier Reef, so there’s a lot of life on this island. Only about 300 people live there, and the island is essentially pristine. They recycle all of their garbage. What they can’t use, they send back to the mainland for processing.
It’s amazing and also shocking to walk through one of the Kentia Palm forests and start seeing these bulbous of plastic on the ground near these holes, and this puzzled scientists for many years until they started seeing fledgling sea water birds dead on the beach, and they opened them up, and they started finding plastic in their stomachs, that they realised what was happening.
The parents of these birds are fishing, and mistaking plastic floating on the ocean’s surface for fish, and coming back to the burrows and feeding these chicks plastic, and the lucky ones were able to stagger to the front of the hole and regurgitate the plastic, but not all of them are capable of doing that. What we’re seeing during the sea water nesting season is every morning, dozens and dozens of baby birds dead on the beach, and the reason they’re dead is because their stomachs are being filled with plastic, and they’re dying of starvation. That was a real shock, because it was the first time that I’d come face to face with a bird that I know very well, because they nest in Tasmania, and I used to study them in Tasmania, and to open it up and see hundreds of pieces of plastic in these tiny little animals, and to realise, that that golf tee, or that plastic soda bottle top, could have come from me, because I could have thrown that away, thinking it would go away, and it would be in landfill and not hurt any other creature on the planet, and yet it would have found its way to the ocean and potentially have been picked up by the mother of that bird and ingested by the baby bird.
If it wasn’t that plastic bottle, then maybe some other plastic items I’ve thrown away in the past are doing similar damage, causing similar damage to other animals. For me, if was a real awakening, and realisation of the individual responsibility we all carry.
Thanks so much for sharing that, Craig. I particularly found those scenes quite confronting myself, and I guess similar to you, although I’m from Gippsland, not Tassie like you. I grew up near the Gippsland Lakes where there were a lot of coastal birds, a lot of migratory birds, and I just loved those sea birds, and just watching that footage in the film really moved me as well, but thank you for capturing that and sharing it so widely, so everyone can get that understanding. It was quite a shock to see that happening on Lord Howe Island.
One thing that you do state in the film is that the majority of plastics in our oceans originates from just six countries. I’ll get you to name those countries, because they weren’t the six countries that I thought would have been the main generators. Would you mind sharing what those countries are, and tell us what is it about these six countries that’s leading to a higher volume of plastics being discarded in the ocean? Where are we going wrong with these countries?
The majority of plastic in our oceans originates from just six countries. What is it about these countries that’s leading to a higher volume of plastics being discarded in the ocean?
The countries probably wouldn’t surprise a lot of people, because they are countries with big populations, and that’s part of the problem. China is the number one country that causes plastic waste to flow into the oceans. Indonesia is the next. Then you’ve got the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. It goes on up until the top 20, which starts to include countries like Australia and the United States.
The reason these countries have such a massive problem isn’t a reason that necessarily reflects on them, because these are all developing countries. They’re in the process of developing their own urban systems, and that includes dealing with municipal waste. But what they have been forced to do is to consume products that are made elsewhere, so these are countries that with large populations that are buying products from Europe, from Australia, from America, so the plastic packaging that is coming with these products is being dumped into communities where they have no ability to deal or recycle the plastic waste, so it ends up in the ocean.
That’s why you find that countries, particularly in Asia, are the biggest polluters. It’s not necessarily their fault. They’re doing what they’ve been asked to do, and that is consume what’s made in the West. The problem begins at the manufacturing process, and we need to start looking at how we package our goods, and what we do at the end of the life cycle of that product.
That’s fair enough. Another aspect, and that you showed in the film, was when you travelled to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Now, like many listeners today, I’ve read and I’ve heard about the massive Gyres in each of the world’s main oceans, and particularly that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and I had pictured it in my head as just this massive whirlpool of large plastics like bottles and fishing buoys, all swirling in a massive soup. This is where I learned something in the film, because after seeing the footage of the North Pacific Gyre, where you visited, I realised that the patch didn’t contain shipping containers and big plastic chairs and everything, like I imagined, but instead is comprised of more sinister plastics.
Would you mind sharing what you found when you travelled to the North Pacific Gyre, and why the size and composition of the plastic found there is so alarming?
Let me explain what a gyre is, first of all. The earth has five major oceanic gyres. These are pretty much very large circular currents, and they move in giant circles and what that does, it actually propels things that the earth needs to survive, so they create our weather patterns, they move food stock and fish resources around the world. They also move oxygen around the planet. They are crucial. I call them the engines of the world. They’re crucial to our own survival as a species, in regulating the planet. When anything enters an ocean, and floats, it will get caught in one of these ocean gyres, and over 20-30 years will eventually make its way to the centre of the gyre.
It’s not a whirlpool. It’s just, when you go there, it’s just an ocean. These oceans, the currents move quite slow. What that does with plastic is, it tends to concentrate plastic towards the centre of these gyres, so they’re a very good place to go to see exactly what’s going on and how much plastic is being moved about, and the density of plastic within the oceans.
We were told that there was this Great Pacific Garbage Patch that was as big as Texas, and in the North Pacific. We went to look at it, and what we found was crystal clear waters. There was no floating island of garbage. What we found was far worse, when we put trawls into the water, we were coming up with this glutinous mass, and when you refloated it, in a dish, it both … It all revealed itself to be micro plastics.
What was happening was, as a water bottle or a plastic container or plastic wrapping, was entering the ocean, and as it moved around the gyre, and the actions of the sun and the water, and the salt, it would break these plastic pieces up into smaller pieces, so that eventually, by the time they enter the centre of the gyre, we’ve got all of these micro plastics. What our producer, Jo Ruxton, found was some 46,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean. It gives us an idea of the density, and what that did for us was trigger the question, what’s going on in the gyres around the rest of the world? That’s when we decided to really go and have a look and start our travels.
You found similar findings in the other gyres around the world?
That’s right. We’ve travelled to … And we targeted pristine locations, because we thought if we’re finding plastics in pristine locations, then we’ve got a problem. We went to the South Pacific, we went off the west coast of Tasmania, to some of the islands there. We did trawls all around the world, and we checked wind lines and the sand on beaches in 20 different locations. What we found was that there is no place that there isn’t plastic, even in sub Antarctic waters, the shearwaters that we were opening were bringing back, because we put trackers on them, so we knew they were feeding into sub Antarctic waters, and they’re bringing back plastic.
That tells us, which may sound obvious to some people, but certainly we forget, is that the earth is really just one giant ocean. If anything goes in the ocean, it can spin from one gyre to another gyre to another gyre, and end up anywhere. Even in a place that has no humans, has no plastic production, is seemingly impenetrable to the detritus that we as humans create. But that’s not the case, because the oceans just mean that this stuff floats everywhere, and when it gets into marine life, of course marine life are migratory, so they can also take plastic all over the world. It’s a global problem.
Indeed. Everything’s interconnected.
It is. That’s something that we try to show that message in the film as well. The reason we shot the film as a travel adventure was because I wanted to take people along with us. I wanted the audience to feel as though they were travelling with us, and experiencing what we were experiencing. I thought that would make it more personal, and I believed at the time that it would help people empathise with the people that we were meeting that were being affected by plastic, and also the animals. Also, to connect people again to nature, and to an understanding that we come from an Eco-environmental system that relies on all species to make it work. Without sharks, without dolphins, without elephants, without ants, without bees, we, ourselves, won’t survive. It’s important to get people to reconnect to that, because I think, in our daily lives, as we go to and from work and school in our cars and the safety of our homes, nature tends to be something that we think of as outside our front door, outside our house, when it’s not. Every breath you take is a result of nature. Every food item you eat has come from nature. We’re all intertwined. That’s a strong message that I hope the film is able to deliver to audiences.
I think it delivers that really well, and personally I love that travel documentary aspect of the film. I shared with you earlier, before we started recording, that I think it was 2006 when I dived in the Mediterranean, and I was off the coast of Croatia, and I saw a lot of plastic in that dive, and I didn’t see many fish. I’d done most of my diving in North Queensland and the South Pacific, so the lack of fish really hit home to me, but also the waste. I guess seeing the footage that you’d shot in the Mediterranean, and then I’d been on holiday to Fiji as well, so the footage that you shot there, but I hadn’t been to the Philippines, and I hadn’t been to Tuvalu, so those two countries, and I’m not going to give anything away on this call for them, because everyone’s going to watch the film, but the scenes that you shot in those two countries, and the people actually living on plastic waste dumps, with children scavenging for plastic to make money for their families, and living with the health impact of living in a plastic world, truly, truly shocking scenes, I felt.
Exactly. Particularly, those scenes are important, because people need to understand the connection between the plastic they throw away and that word away. We think it goes away, but it doesn’t go away. It comes back at us, and it has a profound health impact on the poor, as opposed to the consumer, because it ends up in places where they live, and they have to deal with it. That’s also quite important in the film, but it’s important to realise that this isn’t a third world problem. It’s not a developing world problem. It is a global problem, and we all have it. You cannot escape it. If you leave a bottle of water in a car and you come back and drink it, chances are you you’re going to be ingesting estrogenic chemicals, or chemicals with estrogenic activity, because they’ve leeched into that bottle of water. It doesn’t matter where you live. It’s about the lifestyle that you have, and making that connection, and just raising awareness that this is a problem, is the first thing we need to do, because most people don’t know it’s a problem.
Before I started this documentary, I had no idea that single use plastic was a problem, and that’s the plastic soda bottle I was drinking out of and throwing away wasn’t being dealt with properly. We say in the film, if you don’t know, you can’t care. Important role of the film is to create awareness, first and foremost, and then to start to help to educate people.
Yeah. You’re doing a great job of that. I’m interested, though, to hear, what changes to your own lifestyle that you’ve made since filming A Plastic Ocean, and your changes to your lifestyle to reduce your own plastic consumption? I know I’m being a little bit cheeky, but I am interested.
What Changes Have You Made To Your Own Lifestyle To Reduce Your Plastic Consumption?
I think firstly, I’m boring my friends to tears, because every dinner party I go to always ends up talking about plastic, and I get asked the question about do I eat fish or don’t I eat fish anymore, and I don’t, and then we start talking about that. These people are eating fish, then it becomes a bit of a problem. I think I’ve become a bit of a bore to my friends, but personal, it’s completely changed the way that I look at products. From the moment I want to buy something, to the moment I am disposing of it. I think of the life cycle and the impact it has. I don’t use single use plastics anymore. I consider the products I’m buying, if they’re wrapped in plastic, or if they’re wrapped in a sustainable product, like cardboard.
It’s become something that initially, to break the habit of using plastic, it takes a while to be able to do, because you’ve got to remember to, when you’re at a restaurant, to tell the waiter, as you order the drink, please don’t bring me a straw. It’s too late once he’s brought it to you and you go, I don’t need that straw. We don’t need straws. 500 million of them are used and discarded in the United States every day, and we’re finding straws in animals all over the world. Turtles, whales, dolphins, and they’re a real problem. We don’t use them at home, so why do we need to use them when we go out to a restaurant? The answer is, we don’t.
Getting into the habit of telling the waiter, as you order the drink, please don’t bring me a straw, or anything plastic, takes some time. I still occasionally lapse on that. But also I’ve started composting and recycling everything. All my food scraps, and I live on the 12th floor of a building in central Hong Kong, and I compost all my food scraps, and I grow vegetables and plants on the roof, which is fantastic, because it’s reduced the amount of waste I throw away, and we get a benefit from it. It’s just wonderful to see your chilli plant delivering chilies, and wake up one morning and seeing your tomatoes there, it’s just a fantastic feeling that you’re contributing and recycling personally.
We recycle everything in our office, where we can’t avoid plastic. Metal and paper, we’ve got a company that we specifically chose, and did due diligence on, to know that the products they were taking from us were being sold to appropriate recycling dealers, and then processed, sorted and processed. We’ve got a company that we pay to come to the house and come to the office and studio, and take our waste from us, because that’s not a service that’s provided in Hong Kong, which is why we’ve got such a major problem on our beaches. We are literally swimming in plastic there.
Individually, it starts with us, and it starts with each person, and that’s just a … It’s a simple task of drilling down, looking at what you use and how you use it, and just requesting different products. Ass for your takeaway not to be put in plastic. You don’t want to be eating plastic with your food. Ask them to put it in a cardboard box, or wrap it in paper, or put on a paper plate and wrapped up with paper. There are many other ways that they can do it. Eventually they’ll get the message.
We’ve started working with a lot of restaurants around the world now, who are becoming plastic conscious. That’s purely because people approach them and say that there’s a problem. In Australia, we just had Woolworths and Coles announce that they’re going to put a levy on plastic bags to discourage their use. That’s fantastic. That’s because there are people who are questioning them about the need for the plastic that they wrap individual items and fruit in. You don’t need plastic around a banana. You don’t need plastic around a coconut. These fruits have the most amazing packaging they need. They can be sold as they are. That’s a major step forward.
We’ve found implementing a dollar cost on plastic bags is the most successful way to go. In Hong Kong, and in the UK, where this is being done, people complained about it initially, because they thought they were losing their bin liners, and that it was a tax and all these sorts of things, but once they got used to bringing their own plastic, their own bag with them, their recyclable bag or their backpack, and putting their groceries in there, realised that this is having a major difference, and it is. It’s reducing plastic consumption and waste from plastic bags enormously, everywhere it’s been introduced.
Public pressure, individual pressure, helps, and just questioning people at restaurants and stores that you go to where you buy your products. Ask them if they’ve got something that’s not wrapped in plastic.
Yeah. That’s right. The more of us that are asking those questions, the more change we can collectively make. I’m impressed. You’re semi self-sufficient in Hong Kong. That’s a massive achievement. Well done, to be growing your own fruit and veg in Hong Kong.
I’d like to be doing a lot more, and there is a big movement in Hong Kong towards this sort of sustainable lifestyle, and in some areas the government is getting involved, and they’re planting rooftop gardens on buildings that are owned by the government, and moving towards greener alternatives, in terms of heating and cooling buildings, and things like that. We’re seeing China do that now as well. They’re developing an entire village, green village, at the moment, which should be completed in about five years time, which they say will be self-sustainable.
China recognises there is a problem, and they recognise there’s a problem because their land, in many places, is … You can’t grow crops. It’s so polluted, and so toxic. Their air is toxic. That affects social health and social well-being, and the last thing China’s government wants is social unrest. For them, being green and moving towards renewable energies, and reducing plastic usage, is about keeping a stable population as it is about being environmentally green and aware. But it does send a message, and that’s a message that a lot of other Asian countries are getting. We’re seeing APEC now looking at developing recycling systems in their countries, and replicating successful systems that exist in other place.
That’s great. That’s interesting that you mentioned China too. Some Chinese friends of mine mentioned a film or documentary called Plastic China. I haven’t watched it, but I have seen some snippets of it online, and I haven’t been able to find it online, but yeah, I would be interested to watch, and that was obviously going into towns and stuff where there are factories that are making a lot of plastic toys, and looking at a lot of the contamination there, but the health impact on the people. I’m not sure if you’ve heard or seen that documentary?
I’m very much aware of it. It does take a very close look at what’s going on in China. A lot of the problems we’ve talked about already, such as overpopulation, such as consumer demands and growth in a lot of these cities and the demand for product, causing all of these sorts of problems. They take a look at how that’s affecting individuals, and their own ecosystems in China. It’s quite shocking, but we’re seeing that happen, not just in China, but all over the world. Landfills are filling up, we have nowhere else to put our rubbish. Some places are dumping it at sea, which also creates all sorts of problems, and what we’re going to have to come to a realisation is that we can’t keep taking resources, virgin resources, out of the ground, to make product, when we’ve already got resources in the landfill. I think you’ll see a situation develop in the not too distant future where we actually go back and we start mining landfill, because of the valuable resources they contain.
If you look at plastic, 4% of the world’s oil reserves go into making plastic. One plastic bottle, 500 ml plastic bottle, if you were to break that down to the resources that created it, and then filled that bottle with those resources, then you would fill just less than a quarter of that bottle with the oil that it took to make it.
We are seeing this technology developing. We’re seeing ways to energy plants, that are turning plastics back into oil that can be used in villages in India for example, and Indonesia. There are concerns that we’re still burning oil. Some of these systems have better closed loop systems than others, but what we’re proving with that solution, whether you agree with it or not, is that it is a solution that shows plastic is a valuable resource, and that’s what we have to tag it as. We have to see it as toxic, first of all. I think we need to see legislature introduced where it is declared toxic, because then we will deal with it as a toxic substance. Then, as a very valuable resource that we can take from the landfills that we’ve got, we can recycle and repurpose it into further products.
Great. Is there anything that you haven’t mentioned, of course the actions that we can take at a consumer level, and individual, and in our families and households ourselves, and obviously you’ve mentioned a couple other things, like listing plastics as toxic, so we deal with it accordingly, and obviously the supermarkets moving to people paying for more durable plastic bags, rather than the other ones. Is there anything else that you haven’t yet mentioned that you think needs to happen to stem the flow of plastics into our oceans?
What needs to happen to stop the flow of plastic going into our oceans, and the impact it’s currently having?
People ask me what’s the solution, and I tell them that in the course of making this film over the last eight years, there isn’t one solution. There are four main solutions that I think we need to address. The first is, we need to legislate. We need to change government policy so that governments can legislate to ban single use plastic from going into the environment, because that’s when it becomes a problem. We need to legislate to force companies that have produced plastic to be responsible for its life cycle, so that they have to deal with it at the end of its life cycle. That way we will see a lot of technology start to develop very quickly where it is recycled and repurposed.
We need to monetize value systems, and monetize recycling, because as soon as you build an economy on something, then the incentive is there for people to get involved and to deal with it. We’ve seen that happen in Germany, and we actually show the closed loop system that’s been working in Germany since 1991, and Germany recycles 90% of its waste, and everyone gets the benefit from that economically. From the consumer who returns the plastic bottle to the supermarket that sells the crushed plastic bottles back to the recycler, who sells it back to the plastic manufacturers. That works very successful. There’s no reason it can’t work in other countries around the world.
Of course, the fourth solution is awareness. We need to make people aware. As soon as people know that this is a major health problem, and it’s a problem for future generations, then they can start looking at how to solve it as an individual. Those solutions are as we mentioned, just starting at home by reducing your single use plastic consumption. Don’t use straws. Try not to take plastic packaging vegetables from the supermarkets. Take the fruit, or from the local fruit seller that’s there and they can just be slipped into your backpack. They’re all very simple ways to start. Once you start looking at those ways, then other solutions become a lot more obvious.
There’s some great tips there. I’ve seen just in … Well, we buy most of our … The fruit and veg that we don’t grow, because we’ve got quite a decent garden in our backyard, we get from an independent organic store in Adelaide, and we get it delivered to our town, but I know the local supermarket has recently, in local large chain supermarket, there’s just one in the regional town I live, has recently installed the self-serve checkouts, and at the same time, most of the fresh produce is now packaged with a bar code on it so people can just scan it through their self checkouts. I think the two are linked. Obviously the self-serve checkouts and the extra packaging to make it easier for people to scan their produce, and they can lose a few extra staff members, because they don’t have them on the checkouts. Maybe I’m a little bit cynical, but they both have happened at the same time. It’s a trend that we don’t really want to see continue to be rolled out.
Once again, that is a problem. All of these things have to be addressed in a community scope where it’s encouraged by community leaders for that to happen, for all of those different ways that we can reduce plastic usage, and that we have to take an economic hit to do that. If it costs money to recycle and to deal with it, then let’s end it, because we’re saving money in the long run. Once waste gets into the environment and the damage it causes, it runs into such a high figure that it makes the spend at the front end of the problem seem insignificant. If we can solve the problem at the front end, before it gets into the environment, then we’re saving ourselves incrementally a lot in terms of the economic benefit of having environments that are able to produce food for us, fish, beef, and the resources in the earth that we need to build our homes and computers and everything else.
I believe it’s definitely a community problem, and I think that if we start locally, which we’re seeing around Australia, we’re seeing beach cleanups and surf life foundations, and plastic groups and NGO’s now coming together to make that happen, so I think we’re going to see, hopefully we’re going to see a turnaround in the way that we perceive plastic in the next five years.
How Did It Feel When Sir David Attenborough described A Plastic Ocean as the most important film of our time?
Yeah. I really, really hope so. Now, Sir David Attenborough has described A Plastic Ocean as the most important film of our time. I bet that must have made you feel pretty amazing, because he’s such an iconic filmmaker, documentary filmmaker himself. How did that feel?
Yeah. He’s my childhood hero. He’s been a big influence on my life, and one of the reasons why I wanted to become a documentary filmmaker, because his films resonated with me, they taught me a lot, and I learned a great deal from his discoveries, and I just thought that would be so cool, to be able to be involved in an industry where you could do that, and you could bring these amazing creatures into people’s lives, and get them to relate to them.
When we got to work with him, and the producer, Jo Ruxtin, had worked with him previously at the BBC National History Unit, so he brought him on board to help us with the project, and he was just amazing to work with. He’s exactly as you would imagine him to be, from what you see on TV. He’s no different. He’s extremely gentle and patient, and professional, and you can present him with some facts and figures and he can repeat those on camera without a script, five minutes later, with the knowledge and depth that he has to make it all make sense. For me, it was a great privilege to be able to work with him, and then to have him say that about our film was amazing, because he’s never worked on an issues-based film before. He’s always believed that people should make their own minds up about different things that are going on, and he’s always wanted to not be political, and not be drawn in as an activist, I guess you could say.
For him to be involved in the film to start with, and to agree to filming, we filmed a lot more with him than we showed in the film, but we were hoping to use some more of that footage in later projects, but for him to not only be involved, and then to, I guess, tell people that this is an important film, and a film that you should see, that resonated with all of us very deeply. We were very happy to have him say that for us. It gives us credibility, and we spent a lot of time working on the science of the film, because we knew that we were showing something people hadn’t seen before, and there would be a lot of debate, particularly from the oil and chemical industries, and the plastic manufacturers. It was important for us that we had very good scientists on board, so we brought teams of scientists on, and we had the science verified, and then tried to produce that science in layman’s terms, and still make it accurate, was a challenge in itself, but I think we achieved that. Certainly the academic reviews we’ve had have been very favourable, which is also, give the film credibility, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
Yeah. I agree with Sir David. It’s a great film, and you’ve done a fantastic job, and especially with the scores of scientists. Everywhere you went, you had a different expert in the field. It was … It made for really compelling viewing, just the footage itself, but then the science to back it up. It was brilliant.
Yeah. It was important for people to be able to watch these scientists in action. I didn’t want to just read reports coming back. I wanted to be beside them, helping them, understanding how the method that they collected the science, and then how they translated that into verifiable facts and figures. For us, it was fantastic to be able to work with some of the world’s best scientists, and also gave them a voice with a lot of work that they’re doing.
Great. For the listeners today who haven’t yet watched A Plastic Ocean, how can they watch this documentary? Basically, where can they best go to support your work?
Where Can We Watch A Plastic Ocean Film?
If you want to support the foundation, they can go to https://www.plasticoceans.org/ and if they go to the film tab, they can download it directly from the site, and the rental cost of the film goes to the foundation to help continue the work.
If they have Netflix, they can download it from Netflix. It’s on Netflix globally, and Leo DiCaprio has personally backed the film, in association with Netflix, and has his name now on the film. It’s on iTunes in most countries. It was reached number one in the US on iTunes documentary, number one in the UK, and number one in Canada. iTunes, so we’re really pleased with that. It’s also on Amazon. If they go to the website and check film screenings, they can see, they can watch it in a public forum, in a cinema, or at a film festival, or some other event that’s taking place around the world every night.
The access, we’ve got with distributorship with the film, we’ve pretty much got it on every major digital platform, so people can access it, and once again, share it, and then can call us if they want to host a public screening or take it to a school or use it for education if they get in touch with us through the website. Now screening producers will organise for a printable form to go to people, so that they can hold their own public screenings.
Indeed, that’s what I’m doing in my local town on Monday, the 31st of July. I’m hosting a screening in my local town of Roxby Downs. Tickets are available here.
Just for those listeners too that are interested in hosting a screening in their local town or at their schools or whatever, it is very easy, straightforward process. I just followed the links on the website, and made contact, paid the royalties, and getting it all organised, so it’s been very straightforward.
Well, thank you so much, Craig, for your time today, and you’re in Spain at the moment, and I’m in Australia, so I know we’re grappling with time differences, and delays in the interview, but it’s just been truly amazing to speak with you face to face, and ask you all these detailed questions on filming A Plastic Ocean, and having you share your amazing knowledge with us, and our listeners today. Thank you so much.
Thanks for the opportunity to let us share the message, and good luck with your screening. I hope you get a lot of people and a lot of interest.
If you’re keen to learn more about the impact of plastics in our environment and how you can reduce your consumption, check out these other blog / podcast episodes:
About Craig Leeson
Craig Leeson is an award-winning journalist, television presenter and filmmaker. His debut cinematic feature film, “A Plastic Ocean”, which he wrote, directed and executive produced, was ranked number one documentary on iTunes in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada and is listed globally on Netflix with the backing of Leo DiCaprio. Craig is the CEO of Leeson Media International and Ocean Vista Films and founder of the I Shot Hong Kong Film Festival. He is a television news correspondent, presenter, emcee and public speaker. He began his career as a newspaper journalist before moving to radio and television as a news correspondent and anchor for ABC TV Australia. Craig has worked with the world’s major broadcasters including BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, PBS, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Bio Channel, Universal, Al Jazeera and the Seven Network. He began his documentary filmmaking career in 1999 and has won the Asia TV Awards for “Rebel Impasse”, on the Maoist rebels of Nepal; “Marco Polo: The China Mystery Revealed”, (National Geographic Channel); and a New York Festivals medal for Best International Affairs Documentary on “The fall of President Suharto”.
A Plastic Ocean has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2016 Raindance Film Festival. He has produced and directed NGC’s top Asia television programmes and projects including The Making Of A Gala, GeoWatch Asia, the Top 30 Countdown for NGC’s 10th anniversary special and Earth Day promos shot in multiple countries. He produced and directed Asia’s first extreme sports television series – the Action Asia Challenge – and screened it on two networks simultaneously, NGCI and ESPN. He is the first film director to stage a fashion show at the UN headquarters in Geneva. He is committed to charity work, producing successful fundraising films for Room To Read, Operation Smile, The Sovereign Art Foundation and FilmAid. From Tasmania, Craig is a passionate oceans explorer, adventurer, surfer and diver. He also plays guitar in a published rock band. He is the fourth generation journalist in his family.
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