We use a lot of plastic here on planet Earth.
We sip from disposable plastic water bottles, carry purchases in throw-away plastic bags and eat with tossable plastic dishes and cutlery. Ever wonder where it all goes?
Retired world champion free diver Tanya Streeter did. The 43-year-old Austin athlete appears in a new documentary called “A Plastic Ocean,” set for release later this month, which examines the science and health impact of discarded plastic.
“In a nutshell, we believe (plastic pollution) is the next global warming,” Streeter says. “Every piece of plastic ever manufactured is still on this planet. It doesn’t degrade. It breaks down and leaches toxins that have been linked to cancer and endocrine problems.”
Streeter grew up in the Cayman Islands, where she first took up free diving, a sport that sends athletes plunging beneath the ocean’s surface without air tanks or scuba gear. She dove competitively from the late 1990s to 2006, reaching depths up to 525 feet and setting several world records.
Since then she’s gradually shifted into the role of an environmental advocate, appearing in films and on television, including an eight-part BBC series about free diving and a program that required her to spend eight days alone in the outback of Botswana. She now lives in Austin with her husband Paul and their two children, Tilly, 8, and Charlie, 19 months.
Her role as parent — and the suspicion that plastic pollution may have contributed to her fertility issues — have motivated her to do whatever she can to protect the planet for her children and future generations. That’s why she got involved with Plastic Oceans, a nonprofit organization founded by film producer Jo Ruxton.
Ruxton had spent 12 years working with the BBC, making underwater films and working as part of the “Blue Planet” team, but she was frustrated because those films depicted oceans as full of life and ignored issues facing them. She decided to make her own documentary after joining a team of scientists who headed out to sea to find what many of us have heard about anecdotally — the great Pacific Ocean garbage patch. But what they found wasn’t the Texas-sized floating mass of plastic toys, bottles and ice chests you might have envisioned.
“When you put a plankton trawl across the surface, we started to see little bits of plastic,” Ruxton says. “The closer we got to the center, the thicker this plastic was. Our nets were choked with it.”
The crew discovered pulverized bits of plastic floating at the ocean surface — a slurry rich with chemical toxins and mixed with the plankton that provides a food source for fish. That, Ruxton says, was more alarming than a floating island of trash.
“(At first) I thought it was just an issue of pollution, of eyesore and entanglement,” she says. “I had no idea of the insidious nature of it and that it was a threat to human health.”
Humans have manufactured more plastic in the last decade than in the 100 years prior, Ruxton says. Much of that ends up in waterways, where it breaks down over time.
According to the film, more than 8 million tons of plastics end up in the world’s oceans each year, eventually becoming a sort of plastic smog. Some plastic is dumped by shipping vessels, but most comes from the land. It takes an estimated 20 years for a plastic object to work its way from the coastline to the center of the ocean, where it concentrates.
“During that 20 years, it’s subjected to salt, sunlight, wind and wave action,” Ruxton says. “That’s what makes plastic brittle, so it breaks up into tiny fragments.”
The plastic leaches out toxins, but also attracts — and adsorbs — other toxins from decades of industrial and agricultural runoff, creating what Ruxton describes as “poison pills” in the ocean. Tiny planktonic creatures eat those plastic fragments, and it’s passed as fish eat the plankton. Once a fish eats anything containing plastic particles, the attached chemicals are released and stored in the animal’s fatty tissue, increasing the chemical load as it moves up the food chain. And humans are at the top.
People need to understand that plastic is not and never was disposable, Ruxton says. Despite the film’s grim message, she says people shouldn’t feel helpless.
“We’ve been told since the 1950s that plastic is disposable. We don’t think about it, we’ve grown up with it,” she says. “We’ve just got to cut down, stop thinking it’s disposable. The sooner people realize that, the sooner politicians get on board, the sooner we can change this. I have no doubt we can do it.”
Ruxton and Streeter hope the film will remind people that they can make a difference through small changes. Buying bar soap instead of liquid soap, using paper-wrapped sticks of butter instead of tub butter, refusing single-use plastic bags, using refillable water bottles and skipping straws all make a difference, they say.
“Don’t underestimate the power of these things,” Streeter says. “As individuals, we have so much power and so much influence.”
The hour-and-40-minute documentary, which includes scenes filmed in Austin, is set for release Jan. 19 and will be available on iTunes starting Jan. 20. An Austin screening is planned, but a time and date have not yet been set. (For more information, go to plasticoceans.org.)
“I feel like my work on this film has brought me full circle to the person I am, me making good on my bond with the sea,” Streeter says.
HOW TO HELP
1. Bring your own bag to shops.
2. Drink tap water and carry it in your own bottle.
3. Choose fruit and vegetables not wrapped in plastic.
4. Use matches instead of “disposable” lighters or use a refillable one.
5. Don’t use single-use plates, knives or forks.
6. Wherever you can, choose liquid products that can be refilled rather than bought new.
7. Refuse plastic straws in your drinks.
8. If you can’t find an alternative to single-use plastic, make sure you recycle it.
9. Don’t celebrate with balloon releases; balloons will wind up in the ocean, choking seabirds, turtles and marine mammals.
10. Use crystal deodorants — they last longer, are more effective and some come without plastic packaging.
12. Use good old-fashioned soap instead of liquid soap.