- Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has garnered numerous awards and attention from around the globe. With a message that stirs people to want to reverse course, Angela Sun’s documentary is an exposé that left this viewer deeply moved by the enormity of the environmental catastrophe in progress as well as by the proximity of the problem to easily overlooked dimensions of our daily lives. The film was particularly meaningful for me after having witnessed firsthand the challenges of trash disposal and environmental degradation on Atafu Atoll in Tokelau, and it will resonate with numerous discussions of contemporary issues in the Pacific.
Sun describes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (gpgp) in the North Pacific as an immense floating mass of toxic debris about the size of Texas. In the film, she makes her way to remote Midway Atoll, just south of the North Pacific gyre where the gpgp is located, to see firsthand what she considers “ground zero,” an island with minimal human development and an enormous albatross breeding ground awash in plastic debris.
According to the filmmaker, plastic debris collects in this fashion because a combination of gyres (large systems of rotating ocean currents) serve as catchment basins, and debris that would otherwise circulate randomly concentrates within certain zones. At the same time, low-lying islets and high islands alike act as “combs” and catch the plastic waste as it swirls by, concentrating the pollutants and toxins with potentially horrific short- and long-term consequences for nonhuman (and possibly human) ecologies. The gyres that participate in the ocean’s plastic sickness can be seen as a metaphor for Sun’s documentary storytelling. She too has several topical gyres of information that swirl about throughout the film and ultimately coalesce into a compelling picture of environmental dysfunction.
Gyre 1: plastic debris. Sun cites statistics for plastic production, which began in the early twentieth century but ramped up during World War II and has seen steady growth since. There is ample footage of debris on Midway (five tons of washed-up plastic is inadvertently fed to nesting albatross by their parents every year); abandoned nylon nets tumbling along the shallow coral-sea floor, destroying the delicate ecosystem (there are an estimated 640,000 tons of discarded plastic fishnets in the ocean); and marine life entangled in all manner of plastic trash. A US Fish and Wildlife ranger cuts open a newly deceased albatross to display a bellyful of [End Page 268] plastic. It is thought that nearly all of the 1.5 million albatross that inhabit Midway have plastic in their digestive systems. Besides being fed plastics by their parents, the birds eventually consume them on their own, often by way of eating fish, which have plastics in their guts as well. The ocean is undoubtedly full of plastic debris, but how it got there is unclear. Humans obviously allow it to flow into the oceans, but there is not a ready explanation of the conduits by which the oceans have become such astonishingly massive dumping grounds. Sun gives this topic only cursory attention, though her silence may not reflect failure of inquiry on her part so much as the inadequacy of detailed empirical research regarding pollution chains.
Gyre 2: fish. Fish are an important food source for the entire world, including both humans and birds. Like the albatross, many of the ocean’s fish are burdened with guts full of plastic, with some pieces very tiny and others, surprisingly, not so small. The obvious point to consider is the food chain. Fish eat plastic, birds eat fish; therefore, birds eat plastic. Yet the ability of humans to avoid the plastic bits in our fish does not protect us from the next concern.
Gyre 3: persistent organic pollutants. These are chemical compounds used in myriad industrial applications, mainly pesticides and insecticides, as well as for a number of other closer-to...