By Jo Ruxton
Back in January 2009, I decided to make a documentary about plastic in our oceans and planned to focus the film on the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. This phenomenon had been widely described to be a giant island of plastic that had formed in the North Pacific Ocean; it was ten metres deep and three times the size of Spain and growing. I began to research it and despite the numerous descriptions, I couldn’t find any pictures of it, not even from satellite imagery and that seemed strange.
That trip was a massive eye-opener for me and one that would change the course of my life.
I made it my mission to find a way to go out there and see this spectacle for myself and managed to secure a berth on a research vessel that was due to go later that year. I joined a team of scientists and volunteers on a brigantine, SV Kaisei, and we left from San Francisco at the end of July, heading due west for a 32-day voyage. That trip was a massive eye-opener for me and one that would change the course of my life.
The closer we travelled to the ocean centre, the more choked with these tiny pieces, each trawl net became.
The biggest surprise was the fact that the waters out there at the ocean centre appear to be crystal clear. Yes there are a few large plastic items floating around here and there but certainly nothing like a ‘new continent’ of plastic which is how some describe it. The truth is far more insidious and what I discovered changed the focus of the film entirely. Whilst we could not see much plastic on the surface, our scientists had been carrying out surface plankton trawls which began 400 miles out from the coast. From the moment the first one was emptied, the true nature of the problem revealed itself. Despite the apparent clarity of the water, every trawl contained small pieces of plastic fragments, and the closer we travelled to the ocean centre, the more choked with these tiny pieces, each trawl net became.
Plastic was entering the food chain at the lowest level.
We could even see tiny creatures trying to feed on the plastic, it was all mixed in with the plankton we collected and we realised then that plastic was entering the food chain at the lowest level. I learned on that trip that plastic becomes a magnet for water-born chemicals and science published since then has demonstrated just how rapidly this process takes hold.
That first journey dictated the rest of the film, the potential threat to human health as well as the lethal effects on marine wildlife from ingestion and entanglement. It took us on a global journey, way beyond the north Pacific Ocean, I learned so much during the production and continue to do so but I am heartened by the audiences’ response to the film around the world and the growing movement to tackle the problem.
Unlike global warming, this is an issue we can all contribute to solve
Unlike global warming, this is an issue we can all contribute to solve and that is why I remain hopeful. It is simple – once we understand that plastic was never intended to be disposable because it is designed to be indestructible, we can start to make the changes we need. Even if governments, supermarkets and packaging companies lag behind, there is nothing to stop the individual from making their own choices and encouraging others to do the same.
About Jo Ruxton
Jo Ruxton joined the BBC Natural History Unit in 1997 after working for WWF in Hong Kong and was part of the celebrated Blue Planet team. Over the past 18 years she has been involved in numerous underwater filming projects around the world, from Antarctica to the pristine reefs of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. After leaving the BBC, Jo decided to produce a documentary feature, A Plastic Ocean, after initially hearing about the plastic problem in 2009 and began raising the funds to start the filming. The film was released globally in January 2017. She co-founded the Plastic Oceans Foundation 7 years ago to help the fundraising process and to take the message of the film beyond its release through three main programmes, Education, Science and Policy and Sustainability programmes.
Watch the trailer: https://www.plasticoceans.org/watch-trailer/
Rent the film: https://aplasticocean.vhx.tv/
More about the Plastic Oceans Foundation: https://www.plasticoceans.org/