Initially mass-produced in the 1940s as the disposable answer to convenience-minded consumers, plastic is the ecological disaster few saw coming.
By 2050, plastic production will quadruple to 2 trillion pounds per year. The U.S. alone produces 15 billion pounds of plastics a year, and 85 million plastic bottles are used every minute. Most of this plastic is not recyclable, and much of it ends up in the ocean, where currents bring it to an area twice the size of Texas known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Midway Atoll, four hours by plane from Honolulu, is ground zero for this aquatic dumping ground, its beaches littered with debris. Discarded fishing nets strangle wildlife and destroy coral reefs, and tiny microplastic bits swallowed by birds and fish move up the food chain, all the way to our tables.
Journalist and filmmaker Angela Sun investigated several aspects of this complex environmental issue, its ramifications, who is responsible, and what can be done to fix the problem in her documentary "Plastic Paradise," a labor of love that was seven years in the making.
Why did you want to make the film?
Angela Sun: Simply because I love the oceans, and I love storytelling. I have always been fascinated with everything under the sea, from a young age. Growing up with immigrant Chinese parents, things like scuba diving, surfing and swimming with sharks were considered crazy talk. So, naturally, as the middle child I always wanted to go the less traveled route. As a journalist, I have always been curious and inquisitive about the world and love to explore and uncover untold stories. The oceans needed a platform, and as a journalist, the goal is to give a voice to the voiceless.
How did you become aware of the plastics problem?
I was working for Current TV at the time when a colleague and good friend of mine were discussing story ideas and this was one of them. We were pitching it as a story for a news magazine on the network. When it got cut due to budget and access issues, I couldn't let the story go. From the inception of the idea to the finished locked picture, it took about seven years.
What was your approach going into it?
My mission was to make this issue of disposable plastics interesting to the general public and get the mainstream to understand the gravity our incessant consumerism and dumping of waste into the oceans. I have always held true to my mission of reaching viewers in a landlocked area, for example, the Midwest, to care about something so far away and seemingly out of sight, out of mind.
What were your biggest challenges?
Financing is almost every independent film's biggest challenge. I ended up self-financing the project, which is why it took so long to finish. It was also hard to gain access to Midway as I had applied for permits during the time it became a national marine sanctuary. I think the biggest challenge is having the perseverance to see this project through to fruition. I would take breaks here and there, and people who were helping out on the film would come and go, but it took a lot of focus and determination to get this done. A lot of people see the glitz and glamour of film festivals, awards and accolades, but behind all of that, many times I have felt the lonely road.
What were the most shocking things that you learned?
The most shocking thing I learned was simply seeing those birds with bellies full of plastic in real life. The smell too: On Midway Atoll there is an area where they would pile up all the dead birds and the rancid smell of decomposed remains almost made me throw up. Additionally the thought that almost every single piece of plastic is still somewhere on our planet is crazy! If it never goes away, and we don't see it, it's got to be somewhere, and those albatross on Midway are canaries in the coal mine. I was also shocked to learn that plastic was made for war just a few decades ago, and we are just at the tip of the iceberg with shocking statistics and findings of really how much plastic is in our oceans.
What are the most important messages you wanted to convey?
My hope is to educate and shed light on this under-reported issue of our plastic trash and its effects, not just on wildlife but how harmful single-use plastics truly are to our waterways and how they are rapidly making their way up the food chain and into our bodies.
We, the general public, do have influence and can be the change we wish to see. If every single person just even did something as simple as saying 'no' to single disposable drinks, that would have a massive impact and save so much unnecessary waste in our environment. Where there is a will, there is a way. The journey of making this film and sharing it is testament to that.
I hear it took three years to get access to Midway. Why was it so difficult to get cooperation?
There was a lot of red tape gaining access initially as it was switching to a national marine monument status, so the governmental agencies would play ping-pong sending us back and forth. It was difficult to get the elusive plastic industry to agree to speak. You will have to watch the film to find out what happens!
A pile of garbage on the Midway Atoll. The trash, from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, washes up on Midway's shore.
Where has the film been shown and where can it be seen now?
We have been to over 30 film festivals, garnered eight awards, and is now airing on Pivot TV network as well as iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, GooglePlay, Vudu, Target Ticket. The DVD is available at our website. It will be release on SBS TV Network in Australia in February. We are working with BullFrog Films for educational distribution.
What has the reaction been to date?
Great reactions, and I usually get frustrated texts and messages from friends who decide to take our two-week pledge to say no to single-use plastics after watching the film. It's hard! But many people have joined us and told me they have changed their lifestyle because of the film. For more information on joining others worldwide, we have a pledge on our website.
Do you think it will make a difference? Can this problem be fixed? What will it take?
I can only hope. This problem is not going away anytime soon. It is just going to continue to grow. With every unfortunate search for missing planes, plastic trash in our oceans comes back into the news cycle. As China and other nations become more industrialized, following western ideologies of consumption, a precarious future is on the horizon.
I think simple consumer changes can help pave the way and encourage industry to become more innovative. However, for real sweeping change, there needs to be legislation to keep the plastic industries in check. An example: I was fortunate to be presented an award from a California assemblymember who helped usher the historic SB-270 bill [prohibiting plastic grocery bags] through. He mentioned that he showed the film to others in the state legislature before the vote, and it helped explain the situation and what a burden it has been on taxpayers and the state of California. That was a tangible piece of evidence that this film can make a difference, little by little. Every day we can all be doing something quite simple. Practice the 4th R — REFUSE — then reduce, reuse, recycle. Say no to that straw, or bag, or coffee cup lid that will stay on for less than five minutes. Be aware and a conscious consumer. It starts with lowering our own consumption.
What do you hope audiences take away — and do?
I hope they take away a respect for the oceans and are moved to taking action along with understanding the urgency for change before we ruin ourselves just quietly. Just say no and refuse single-use plastics.
Related on MNN: