Four hundred miles off the coast of Australia lies remote, pristine Lord Howe island: home to the largest colony of flesh-footed shearwaters on earth and a plastic-pollution horror story of 2018 proportions. The well-being of seabirds is a key indicator of the state of our blue planet and flesh-footed shearwaters eat more plastic relative to their size than any other marine creature. You probably know how this health check is going to go. If you are still getting over the albatrosses feeding their young plastic on Blue Planet 2, now is the time to go and manically recycle.
In Drowning In Plastic, (BBC One)wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin watches a team of scientists examine flesh-footed shearwater chicks as they emerge from their burrows for the first time. They are just three months old and have never seen the sea. And yet, as one is made to swallow water and vomit into a bowl, 20 jagged pieces of plastic emerge. “They’re gradually feeding their chicks to death,” whispers Bonnin, aghast, in despair, and crying, which is pretty much how I remained for the rest of this feature-length documentary. The scientist explains that 20 pieces of plastic is not actually that much. The record, found inside a single chick, is 260.
In the morning, the team patrol the beach, gathering the weak chicks who were unable to make it past the surf because they were weighed down with plastic. They wrap one bedraggled, dying bird in a blanket. They let nature run its course.
Drowning In Plastic picks up where the devastating final episode of Blue Planet 2 left off. Remember David Attenborough’s tremendous closing cri de coeur? Crouching on the sand, blue shirt and white hair rippling in the polluted wind, he implored us to act now to save our oceans, and ourselves. “The future of humanity, and indeed all life on earth, now depends on us,” he said, as the nation’s hearts broke with the surf and we all promised to never buy another plastic bottle.
A year later, with another 8m tonnes of plastic in our oceans, Bonnin sets off on a global expedition to investigate the scale of the crisis (boundless) and what we are doing about it (not enough). This is a catastrophe deepening by the minute, literally. It’s estimated that there are 51trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, not to mention the micro-plastics we are only now beginning to investigate. By 2050 it’s predicted there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. Surely it is already too late.
And yet, as companies brazenly add to the deluge and governments continue to flounder, some individuals are frantically bailing water from the Titanic with the metaphorical equivalent of a thimble. Such as the surfer from Sydney who has invented a “seabin” to collect plastic from rivers, where half the plastic entering our oceans derives. Or the 25-year-old Indonesian who has come up with a seaweed-based, dissolvable, edible alternative to plastic. Or the 24-year-old Dutch man who has invented a giant marauding Pac-Man to roam the oceans, gobbling up plastic from one of five colossal vortexes of waste known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is three times the size of France. You are going to need a bigger Pac-Man.
Every time Bonnin is buoyed up by these fine specimens of humanity, the overwhelming scale of disaster brings her crashing back to the ocean floor, where there is plastic too. She despairs at the millions of miles of lobster pot ropes entangling marine animals. The fishermen resistant to change whose livelihoods depend on plastic nets and lines. The coral reefs poisoned by bacteria-coating plastic, providing “a whole new way to transport diseases that we never even thought about until this year”. The plastic in the faeces of walruses in the furthest reaches of the Arctic circle. And, here in our own polluted element, the as yet unknown effects of the plastic entering our bodies through air, water and food.
“Can you believe this is what goes on when we carry on with our lives?” Bonnin cries as she watches a plastic net removed from the neck of a dead grey seal pup. Her conclusion is definitive. We can all do what we can but unless the plastic tap is turned off our efforts will fail. In a watery echo of Attenborough’s rallying cry: “We need to act before it’s too late.”