Can ‘A Plastic Ocean’ film be the ‘Blackfish’ of marine plastic pollution?

By Rebecca Parrish

Plastic waste, including discarded fishing nets, plastic bags, bottles and micro-plastic beads all threaten the health of our marine ecosystems.
Image from Pixabay used under a CC0 license.

The fight against plastic pollution.

On World Environment Day 2018, the globe unites to #beatplasticpollution, the environmental blight that threatens our marine ecosystems health, and in turn – our own.

Ever since 2016 when the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that by 2050 there may be more plastic in our oceans than fish, the issue of plastic pollution has started to gain much-needed scrutiny.

Of course, as with any campaign, the media plays a huge role in raising awareness, education and public mobilisation. In the fight against single-use plastics, a new film, ‘A Plastic Ocean’ is being showcased. I ask whether this film can help bring the end to single-use plastics, in a similar way that the 2013 movie ‘Blackfish’ hailed the end of captive orca shows for entertainment.

What was ‘Blackfish’ and why was it so successful?

With the passing of the lead character (and portrayed perpetrator), Tilikum last year, many of us will recall the iconic 2013 movie ‘Blackfish’, which shone a horrific light on the mistreatment, misdirection and dangers to handlers of keeping captive orcas in the entertainment industry. The impact of this film has been profound. Within a single year SeaWorld shares fell by 60%. By 2015 they had fallen by 84% and they announced the end of captive orca breeding, which many surmise signals the welcome death of the orca entertainment industry.

Marine parks around the world keep Orca and other marine life captive for amusement and education of visitors.
Image from Pixabay used under a CC0 license.

So how did a piece of visual media play such a crucial role in taking on a multi-billion dollar industry giant? What aspect of media sociology did this film utilise to make it so successful? And what if we apply these techniques to other environmental concerns such as the jeopardous contemporary issue of plastic pollution in the oceans? There is another eco-documentary currently making it’s presence known entitled ‘A Plastic Ocean’ which aims to stem the tide of plastic pollution entering the ocean and to make consumers literate about the risks of plastic pollution. What will the impact of ‘A Plastic Ocean’ be on plastic pollution?

Firstly let’s apply a social scientist’s eye to understand why Blackfish was such a successful public provocateur. According to an analysis by Steve Schoen, the film had a three-fold strategy to impacting its audience: the film was emotive and told a story, yet portrayed itself at all times as a documentary bedded in realism, not fiction or dramatism, and it created a strong identification between viewer and whale by comparing whale intelligence and captivity to that of humans. Finally it worked directly to force viewers to confront their own feelings and presented a corporeal villain that can be boycotted or lobbied, rather than a conceptual question of morality that is difficult to take an active stance for or against. Of course the film was not a stand-alone release but was surrounded by a clever marketing strategy and was the accumulation of years of growing unrest regarding the issue. Nevertheless, it is doubtless that the Blackfish effect was tangible in the hearts of many whale lovers.

And so, turning our attention to plastic pollution, let’s first examine the facts of the matter in a little more detail…

According to ‘A Plastic Ocean’, the Plastic Ocean Foundation we produce over 300 million tonnes of plastic each year, with roughly half of this plastic being single-use with an average life expectancy of only 12 minutes! It is estimated that around 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way into our oceans every single year. There are plenty of pictures in the media of charismatic animals such as much loved turtles, seabird chicks and even whales getting tangled up in plastic waste, or starving to death having ingested too much plastic. But these ghastly pictures don’t portray the full extent of the risks that plastic pollution poses. Even more deadly are the microplastic particles, almost too small to see. Furthermore, plastics contain a cocktail of chemicals, pesticides and other compounds known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) which are contained within plastic objects and which can have a host of other disastrous effects on organisms if consumed.

In the same way that macro-plastic ingestion can harm the feeding habits, physical fitness, reproductive capacity, and ability to avoid predators, of larger species, micro-plastics have the potential to cause the same harms to smaller organisms. For example. a recent study by Doctor Stephanie Wright at the University of Exeter and her colleagues found in a laboratory experiment that within 30 minutes of consumption of micro-plastic, measurable amounts of microplastic build-up was observed in the digestive glands of sea scallops (Placopecten magellanicus).

Although not yet vigorously studied (it’s rather hard to replicate an entire food web, from plankton to cetacean, in the lab!) examples have been documented evidencing that microplastics and POPs are similarly found within organisms at all levels of the marine food chain. This could mean trouble for higher levels of the food chain, which prey on organisms carrying microplastics and POPs. In the worst case scenario, a catastrophic collapse of the entire food chain could result. This would not only spell disaster for marine biodiversity but would cost the global economy billions of dollars in lost fisheries and put at risk over 1 billion people worldwide who depend on fishing as their primary source of protein.

So finally we ask ourselves, how effective will the much anticipated film ‘A Plastic Ocean’ be?

Like Blackfish, the film recruits of many charismatic animals including cetaceans, and makes excellent use of strong and compelling narrative to engage the audience. The film also introduces the silent threat of microplastics to our ocean ecosystems. Already the global reach of the film has been startling, having been screened over 1200 times in 70 countries! Whether it will have the ‘Blackfish’ effect on plastic pollution, only time will tell, but I for one am optimistic that the film’s success and global impact is reflective of the momentum of the new plastic pollution revolution.

Join the fight and help put an end to ocean plastic waste and #beatplasticpollution.

A humpback whale dives near the coastline.
Image from Pixabay used under a CC0 license.

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