"We can't strain the entire ocean": The horrifying truth about where our plastic ends up

Angela Sun tells Salon about her frightening new documentary and reports from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Published September 14, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

   (AP/Julio Cortez)
(AP/Julio Cortez)

Way out in the Pacific, in what can almost literally be described as the middle of nowhere, exists the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast collection of floating litter (although not, as is commonly believed, an actual island of trash) first discovered in 1997. Think of it as where plastic goes to die. Or not, because plastic, by virtue of being non-biodegradable, is guaranteed to outlive us all. That includes the humans who produce it and the fish and birds who consume it.

"Plastic Paradise," a documentary by Angela Sun that will be available online starting Sept. 16, starts with the most disturbing image of that phenomenon you can imagine: out on the Pacific's Midway Atoll, a dead albatross is cut open to reveal chunks of plastic stuffing its belly. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the stuff that's even harder to find: much of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of microplastics, whose impact on the environment is unclear. And recent studies have emphasized how little we know about where it's all going. Researchers surveying the world's major oceans, for example, reported that they can't account for 99 percent of the plastic they were expecting to find at the water's surface, suggesting the rest may have been eaten up by fish -- and meaning it's now part of the global food chain. Another theory holds that sea ice could be an important "sink" for microplastics; as that ice melts, we'll have the release of trillions of tiny pieces of plastic back into the ocean to look forward to.

The world produces a lot of plastic -- 300 million tons in 2012 alone -- and Sun wants us to start paying attention to it. The plastics industry counts on our waste staying out of sight, she argues, and she insists that if we were all really aware of where it ends up, and of what it could be doing to our health, we'd no longer be content with the status quo -- no matter how convenient it seems.

Check out a trailer for the documentary below, and read on for Salon's conversation with Sun, which has been edited for length and clarity:

Everyone knows that plastic doesn't go away -- once we produce it, it's here forever -- but the seeing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch really drives that home in a way that people might not picture. Did you have any conception of what you were going to find before you went there yourself?

I didn't. When I was researching it, there wasn't much out there. There are more pictures and information out there now, but at the time that I went out there there wasn't a large circulation of information on the Internet -- and that's really what drove me to find out about this story, and dig deeper and do more research. I heard about plastic affecting the wildlife out there, but it wasn't until you see it firsthand -- and we also showcase it in the film -- that it becomes tangible. Seeing those toys that I used to play with, or could have played with, still be around in some of the most remote parts of the Earth, in the middle of nowhere, that was impactful. 

People in the plastics industry told you they've never even heard of the garbage patch, and wouldn't believe your photos were real. What do you think accounts for that?

I actually believe that could be true. There are friends of mine who aren't in the plastics industry who also say the same thing. And that's when I feel like my job's not done, and I feel a sense of civic duty or responsibility to share these stories, because I did find out this information. But I think it could definitely be true that they didn't know about it.

What are some of the other misconceptions that you came across, perhaps about plastic in general?

First and foremost, I don't think all plastic is evil -- it's specifically targeting single-use, disposable plastic. I don't think that people even fathom or realize how much is produced, or how much we use, because it's so ingrained in the fabric of our lives. Literally, we wear, touch, eat out of, come in contact with plastic every day. Until you actually try to refuse single-use plastic -- for instance, we have a two-week pledge, just to monitor and see how much you actually use it in your personal life, and a lot of people are astonished and appalled at how hard it is for them to do it.

Another misconception of plastic, or just this topic in general, is that a lot of people don't know where plastic comes from. A lot of people, they just don't question -- it's not even a thought. I think what I strive to do, in all of my documentary work, is just to make people think. Love it, hate it, something. Just have a thought about it, you know? And I think this is a topic that keeps coming back, because the issue keeps growing. And it's not going away, like the plastic out in the ocean.

I also think that the first initial reaction is, let's just go and clean this stuff up. That was my first reaction as well. But I feel like, as humans, we don't understand how small we are, in the scope of the world, and how vastly dependent we are on the oceans of our world. If the Earth is covered by roughly 75 percent water, that's a lot of area that we just don't know about. So for us to say that we're just going to go clean that up -- I don't want to say it's presumptuous, because it isn't, but I just think we don't understand that we can't clean up a mess that's woven and collected into our whole ecosystem now. I'm not fatalistic about it, because you have to be hopeful, but I do think that we have to be realistic. The fact that we can't strain the entire ocean without killing the wildlife in it is just fact. You just can't. And I think we're just skimming the surface on a lot of clean-up efforts -- literally, because you don't know what's down in the depths of the sea. And it's completely littered with plastic.

When you talk about people not being aware of where plastic comes from, I think one of the things the movie really drives home is that there's a major industry behind it. And there's a strong industry effort promoting it. Were you surprised by the degree of industry pressure there is to oppose bans and maybe spread some of this misinformation?

Oh, not at all. I wasn't surprised at all. It's the same model that tobacco companies use; it's the same model that any big industry uses to pacify the public and to just prolong any sort of uproar and keep everything at bay. Because once people know the information, how can you not be affected by it? I'm not surprised at all by the amount of lobbying dollars and marketing dollars that go into a behemoth of an industry such as plastics, and chemicals in general. I'm not a scientist or anything, but I learned a lot about compounds, and plastics is something that is not regulated at all. We don't know what are the chemicals that make it up, because they don't need to label anything. So especially with the bisphenol A (BPA) uproar, it started out with a lot of young moms who did research, because they want to protect their babies, and finding out that this bisphenol A was the hardener for plastics in a lot of baby products, like bottles and such, and in the sports bottles that we use. And that was the impetus to start this whole BPA-free trend. That the plastics industry took it on was because of activists and outraged young moms. But it wasn't an FDA ruling or anything off the bat.

California is becoming the first state in the nation to ban the plastic bag, and that's a huge, historic, momentous moment in this fight against single-use plastics. It took a lot of attempts to push this bill through. And you'd think, why is this so hard? I mean, we obviously see the repercussions of what has happened from our single-use plastic use, and the millions of dollars it costs taxpayers and the government in general. So why would it be so hard to push that through? Well, because the plastics industry lobbied so hard, and put so much money behind that, and it passed very slimly through the state legislature, and then it went on through the , and now it's being signed into law. And I think if we can get the largest state -- and now the largest city, New York, is looking at legislation again -- there could be a ripple effect.

Even since I started working on the documentary, I've seen... it's not crazy exponential numbers, but it's really grassroots, and we as people vote with our wallets every day. And we also have the power to change things. And so if we're pissed enough about something, I think that we can actually petition to change things. And we've seen it happen. It's been slow, but really with the help of media and just educating people -- and that was really my goal, just to educate people.

Another big thing that was pushed by people you interviewed in the film is the power of consumer choice: people going into stores and choosing not to buy plastic water bottles, not to take plastic bags. Would you say this is one of the places where individual action can still have a significant impact?

Absolutely. I think if each one of us... even if it's something simple, I do think that every day we vote with our wallets, and we can make simple changes in our lives. It's not as convenient, but we pay for our disposability in so many more ways that we'll ever fathom. The things that I found out when I was shooting the documentary -- things that had washed up ashore or that were in the bellies of albatross chicks -- weren't from today. They were old, discarded items from 20, 30 years ago. So our choices today directly affect our future. And I saw that, because I saw the things from the '70s, '80s and '90s out there.

Is there anything we can do about that older stuff? Or can we only really use it as a lesson for moving forward?

I know that there are a lot of initiatives to recycle or reuse ocean plastics, or to try to, at least. It's really hard; there are a couple of companies that tried, but because of the different types of plastic that have been discarded, you can't melt it all together and use it again, because the components are either to volatile or they don't work together. It's really, really expensive as well, and photodegradation from sunlight and salt and the sea really breaks down the strength components in those pieces of plastic. So I do think that it is worth trying to clean up, but at the same time I feel like the media could be so powerful to educate people, and as long as they can understand what's going on, and we can make simple, personal choices as well as innovations in clean-up and innovations in processing what to do with sound, discarded plastic, I think we can move forward. But personally, I feel like it has to be such a multi-pronged approach, because it can't just be from the consumer. It's got to be in conjunction with the industry and with legislators.

Has there been any indication from the industry that they would respond to consumer demands?

I feel like the industry is really smart with the way that they market themselves, and there's a lot of money behind campaigns to pacify the public, or to greenwash their products. A lot of consumers won't go the extra mile to find out, "Oh really, how does it break down?" The spewing of the recycling rhetoric has been going on for so long, and it shouldn't be the only option. We should be turning off the tap from the source. And I don't think they're going to stop marketing to us, or telling us anything different. Because it's like printing money for them: virgin plastic is so cheap to produce. I do think they're forced to change because of legislation, but that can work together with educators, activists and consumers, in general. When you look at the whole BPA thing, it was consumers who pressured the companies to change. They slapped a BPA-free logo on whatever it is they're selling, and moms feel better, or people who are drinking out of sports bottles feel better about using that. (I personally think glass is better, or stainless steel, but that's just me.)

So I do know that just looking back at the past decade at what's been done, and how the industry's taken a stance on it, they are forced to do something. And I think if they weren't forced to, they wouldn't.

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

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Bpa California Great Pacific Garbage Dump Plastic Bags Plastic Pollution Plastics Industry Video