On Monday 1 October, BBC One aired perhaps one of the most poignant, emotive and topical documentaries of 2018 – Drowning in Plastic. This one-off ninety minute episode, presented by Liz Bonnin, aimed to show just how much of a devastating effect plastic is having on the planet.
It somewhat seems as if this new movement to expose plastic first began when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II televised its final episode back in December 2017. It’s true that this was perhaps the first time that a such a widely watched series brought the plastic problem to the forefront of our minds. Yet, plastic has been an issue for much longer. Taking a quick glance at its history, the world’s first synthetic plastic was created in 1907 and it was during the two world wars of the 20th century that plastic really began to become mass produced. Despite this, a quick search into Google for ‘documentaries about plastic’ will reveal that almost all television shows focussing on the environmental effects of this material were made post-2010.
Granted, making any environmental documentary costs a sizeable amount of money and in all honesty, programs about plastic simply might not appeal to the masses. This is why modern documentaries with captivating visuals and spirited presenters are needed to engage the attention of the whole population.
Drowning in Plastic does this rather successfully. In ninety minutes, Liz travels between the South Pacific, Indonesia, the east coast of the USA and the Arctic Circle. She demonstrates a variety of problems that plastic is causing in all corners of the globe, and meets professionals in all areas with impressive knowledge to share.
The broadcast is a confounding combination of stunning scenery and wonderful wildlife shots against a background of heartbreaking images showing the devastating effects of plastic. Altogether, this documentary was incredibly hard to watch. In just the first fifteen minutes, a baby seabird is found close to death on a beach on Lord Howe’s Island, just off Australia. The researchers sadly cannot save it and when they bring the body to the lab for dissection, it’s evident that its death was undoubtedly a result of a having a stomach full of plastic.
In a later scene, a deceased seal pup is shown lying on an examination table, strangled and mutilated by plastic netting that was once used in the fishing industry. Seeing such a pure animal, not even a year’s old, lose its life as the result of such heedless human activity is impossibly tragic. It’s a harrowing watch, but realistically, it has to be. We have reached a position where we can no longer sugarcoat these matters, we cannot pretend this isn’t happening. The world needs to see the atrocities caused by plastic, we need documentaries like this.
Amidst the heart wrenching scenes of our suffering planet, Liz connects with some of the people who are attempting to resolve the plastic problem. From giant floating vacuum cleaners, to all-purpose packaging made out of seaweed, it’s a immense relief when we see clips that remind us that perhaps there is a way out of this predicament, but these initiatives need to start now. Despite meeting such inspiring individuals who dedicate their entire lives to sorting out a mess caused by the entire population, there is an unmistakable sense that not Liz, nor any of her production team, really believe things can be fixed.
The documentary is littered with discouraging statistics, like how if we continue at our current rate, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. There’s a despondent atmosphere through the whole ninety minutes. Whilst looking into The Citarum River, Indonesia, where an estimated two thousand tonnes of plastic flow downstream each day, Liz states ‘It’s this weird surreal reality that I never really expected to experience in my lifetime but this is real, this is what’s going on’.
It’s painfully true. Plastic is a problem that has transpired over just a few decades. It’s gone from zero to one hundred in less than a lifetime, choking the oceans, murdering marine life, destroying the earth. If things continue as they are, we will ruin our home planet and so change must happen. Television programs such as this one can be incredibly effective in sparking a change of behaviour as it exposes issues that perhaps we wouldn’t be aware of if we didn’t see it on our screens. After all, it’s unlikely any of us will be travelling to the Arctic sometime soon to witness microplastics in walrus faeces with our own eyes.
The fact is, we need more and more exposure to the devastating realities of plastic. Like many modern day commodities, people mindlessly incorporate plastics into their lives without a thought of where it came from, or where it goes when they are done with it – there’s an overwhelming false belief that once it’s in the bin, it is no longer our problem.
Documentaries such as Drowning in Plastic are so desperately needed to prove that this is never the case and to remind us all that the planet does not finish with the walls of your flat, your rubbish does not cease to exist once it has been binned, and your plastic will still be here long after you are not.
Image: Horia Varlan via Flickr