Drowning in Plastic: BBC documentary explores dangers of marine plastic
Drowning in Plastic exposes the disturbing, global consequences of our throwaway culture, focusing on marine plastic and its movement into the food chain. Following on from David Attenborough’s hugely influential Blue Planet II and the subsequent widespread awareness of plastic pollution, wildlife biologist and presenter Liz Bonnin asks: “Can we turn the tide before it’s too late?"
In this emotional documentary, which aired on 1 October, Bonnin observes the devastating effects of plastic debris in different corners of the world, from the USA to Indonesia, filmed over nine months. Every minute, she reminds us, consumers buy a million plastic bottles, a million disposable cups and two million plastic bags. Every minute, plastic is finding its way into our rivers and seas, which, over a year, results in over eight million tonnes being poured into the marine environment.
Bonnin follows a range of species throughout the programme, opening with the flat-footed shearwater birds. Viewers see birds vomiting up whole pieces of plastic, including bottle caps, after the parents have mistaken the debris for food and then fed the plastic to their chicks. This can cause malfunctions with their reproductive systems and their ability to fly and can ultimately lead to malnourishment and death.
With other sea life also mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish and microplastics for fish eggs or algae, plastic is becoming a deadly part of the food chain.
Bonnin also covered a recent scientific discovery: plastic is the perfect carrier for a deadly bacteria that causes cholera in humans. When the plastic becomes entangled in coral, the bacteria can cut the coral like an “infected knife”, contaminating one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world.
Meanwhile, 300,000 marine mammals and over 400,000 seabirds are killed every year due to entanglement from fishing nets, bringing the North Atlantic white whale particularly close to extinction. With fishermen depending on low-cost methods in order to make a living, plastic often appears to be their only option for durable fishing rope.
Whilst Bonnin does interview some fishermen in the USA interested in revolutionising the industry, through methods such as ropeless fishing, she demonstrates the difficult battle that we face to change human behaviour in order to instigate global change. Yet the powerful images in the programme, such as seals being strangled to death by fishing rope, will leave their mark upon many viewers.
However, even if people want to change their attitude towards waste, it’s not always easy. It is estimated that 2 billion people worldwide don’t have access to proper waste management, so can only throw their rubbish on their doorstep or in nearby waterways.
So who is to blame for this problem? The local authorities that don’t provide facilities for waste disposal, or the big corporations who sell heavily packaged small quantities of modern day essentials – such as shampoo and toothpaste – to countries unable to dispose of it sustainably? It’s a question Bonnin asks, but there’s no final answer.
A glimmer of hope
Whilst global change is yet to happen, Bonnin does explore pioneering efforts and discoveries with the potential to reduce marine pollution, including the recently launched Ocean Clean Up Project hoping to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and new concepts such as the ‘sea bin’ and the ‘trashwheel’, which collect rubbish from the surface of ports and waterways.
Natural resources are also being utilised. One biologist Bonnin worked with found that seagrass can reduce harmful bacteria by 50 per cent by trapping plastic and disinfecting it, using antibiotic properties to kill off bacteria. Another entrepreneur from Indonesia has found a natural alternative that can be used to replace plastic sachets: seaweed.
But are innovations like this coming fast enough? By 2025, Bonnin reminds us that the amount of plastic pouring into our oceans could have doubled, and so she is calling for more drastic behaviour changes. As she told RadioTimes.com prior to the broadcast of the programme: “When it comes to all single use products, I just think if we can live without them, we should live without them. There’s no kind of middle ground any more. So can we live without plastic water bottles? Yes, we can.”
What will the programme achieve?
The response to Drowning in Plastic has been overwhelmingly positive, with thousands of tweets in support of the programme.
But there has been criticism, too, with some viewers wanting a clearer emphasis on the role commercial industries play in this environmental disaster. One tweet from user @LineBallTennis, for instance, claimed that the programme ‘does NOT ATTACK our unsustainable consumption, and irresponsible commercial producing packages!’
The programme finishes on the same note as Attenborough’s Blue Planet II: we need to act before it is too late. While the documentary hashtag, #DrowningInPlastic, was trending at the time of its broadcast, it remains to be seen whether the programme will have a similarly wide-reaching effect.
Drowning in Plastic is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.