Deadline Looms to Fund Critical Ocean Plastic-Trash Film

This article was published in partnership with

Without knowing, as famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle brilliantly summarized in her TED talk, personal caring won’t materialize. And without caring – even about earth’s “life-support system” – then the hope that spawns change remains a long shot. Powerful knowing in this digital time comes from direct, sensory experience, and no media does upfront and personal better than professional filmmaking.

So, by pitching in for the most important life-force we’ve only begun to study in earnest, I became an “ocean activist.” And it’s easy to support two talented filmmakers keen to document the indigestible “plastic trash gyre” that blights the Sargasso Sea. That many can’t locate the Sargasso Sea speaks volumes, considering Earle values it “the golden rainforest of the ocean.” Plus, aside from the huge trash pyre, the Sargasso Sea is vast: 1.5 million square miles extending 2000 miles across the central Atlantic Ocean eastward from the U.S. coast.

Michelle Stauffer and Justin Lewis, the world explorers who conceived Sargasso Sea and Plastic Pollution, found a critical-to-life, yet neglected ocean treasure that cries out for wider visibility. Say, as celebrated as the Sea’s most famous namesakes: one, the real island of Bermuda and two, the hyped fraud called the “Bermuda Triangle” (Florida to Puerto Rico to Bermuda). Unfortunately, as there are five, maybe six oceanic plastic trash gyres (the Pacific heap matches the U.S. in size), it’s impossible to sail any sea without being flabbergasted: in many places, a gallon of sea water has more plastic weight than live organisms.

The filmmakers’ unique mission is a first-rate, in-depth documentary that integrates critical variables, especially the extent of plastic pollution and marine debris and their cumulative impacts on sargassum, the living, floating seaweed that provided the Sea’s name. The Sargasso Sea is an irreplaceable nursery – for fish, including eel, tuna, and marlin plus crustaceans, baby turtles, and a diversity of critters – all protected with its seaweed safety rafts. Without many years of protection from predators, baby turtles would not grow large enough to be ocean-ready, a necessity if they hope to breed and nest in remote beaches. 

Stauffer and Lewis intend to extrapolate findings beyond this one Sea, extending their frameworks to similarly degraded oceans. What’s happening to life in the Sargasso, though individualized, could well relate to other oceanic damage, whether from acidification, chemical dumping, oil spills (large and small), human discharge, or plastic proliferation. All the oceans are garbage dumps because so many sewers inevitably flow downward to the same linked, global sinks.

For a century, humanity has sustained the laughable delusion that, because oceans seem vast, even infinite, human garbage and effluent cannot do harm worth worrying about. In fact ocean abuse since 1900 provides the best rejoinder to indefensible climate denial, assuming “little ol’ us couldn’t ever crash such a huge earth.” All we have to do is analogize ocean to earth and tabulate what’s happened so quickly to the most voluminous planetary surface resource. A few hard facts: 90% of the large fish, including exceptional species like blue fin tuna, have been consumed, 50% of coral reefs are dead or dying, sharks are in deep trouble (mainly due to demand for shark fin soup), and all seven sea turtle species are endangered. Plus, some whales, marine mammals like dolphins and seal species are under pressure, but lack of information in part limits our alarm calls. 

Hard facts also exist for disposable plastic production, totaling around 40 million tons annually. Only 10% gets recycled; of that total, 50% ends up bloating half our landfills; and that leaves 40% of 40 million pounds AWOL, a mere 16 million pounds. No wonder scientists conclude nearly half (seven tons per year) ends up in the world’s final (and “free”) garbage dump. Some plastic residues break down and sink, some populate the millions of acres in the six trash gyres. Check out grim numbers, including how many billions (30) of water containers Americans buy each year.

So, if you care about your grandchildren’s lives, or think knowledge drives action, click the site to contribute at Kickstarter and the site of the filmmakers (with brilliant photography). This cost-effective project needs all of $26K to fund vessels, diving gear, and interviews but, with a week to go (ends March 24), they are still $10+K short. This is a doable project that adds genuine knowledge to this under-investigated, golden rain forest treasure. And just think: no sequester shenanigans can impede its forward motion.

Need More Persuasion – or Science?

That’s the cheerful, future-based promise: now for the harsher complexity called reality and history. Imagine our wizardry to fabricate the perfect, industrial container: cheap, from accessible oil and chemicals, infinitely malleable and durable (yes, its environmental Achilles heal). Because plastic is polymerized (with chemicals) and wholly artificial, such foreign, non-biodegradable substances aren’t digestible by Nature’s evolved animals, even apparently oceanic bacteria. With heart-stopping irony, an easily-fabricated, instantly disposable material has no measurable lifespan, enduring for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, perhaps forever.

Imagine something with the endurance of a rock that gets tossed seconds after use into instant pollution. Because plastic “photodegrades,” disintegrating into tiny micro-plastics, ocean recycling large or small is a non-starter. Because petroleum smithereens mimic zooplankton, even squid or fish fry, being indigestible doesn’t mean hungry ocean-dwellers (fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds) aren’t fooled, tragically swallowing literal junk food. One humpback whale died from painful clogging of the gut where 400 lbs. of trashed plastic was found.  

So, this ubiquitous, water-impenetrable marvel chokes ocean wildlife, from the minuscule to the mammoth, and/or pollutes oceanic systems from sea to not so shining sea. Talk about “externalities” meeting “internalities.” Further, when plastic fragments, noxious chemicals break down, even outgas and float in the ocean, they can be absorbed, like mercury, by the harvested fish we eat. Hold that shrimp roll or fish cake: the plastic bag you discarded years ago could surface as toxic molecules in your next bite. That will sober fish sales and consumption (a good idea) – were oil-chemical residues in fish confirmed and publicized (research underway).

Like climate change, or air pollution, ocean degradation comes from everywhere and impacts everyone, making global solutions essential but all the more daunting. That means unimpeachable knowledge must come in an accessible package, like film transportable in digital formats. Who better than talented filmmakers, tracking the latest science, to educate thousands, if not millions, of potential “plastic eaters” that micro-plastics are today’s real version of the mythic sea monsters that rattled early sailors? There be dragons, indeed, but mystifying and life-threatening only when we never know them “in the flesh;” or with pollution, in their perpetual plasticity.   

“Without the ocean, life on earth could not exist,” to return to Dr. Earle’s wisdom: “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you're connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live.”  Or, her most compact gold nugget, “No water, no life, no blue, no green.” To this day, a mere 2% of all ocean ways are shielded from over-fishing, dredging, mining, drilling, dumping and oil spills. Thus, to her TED audience, Earle sounded the alarm and her basic, life-on-earth agenda:

I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films, expeditions, the web, new submarines – and campaigns to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas – hope-spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.

You can help by pitching in a few bucks, both to help two committed environmentalist-filmmakers and increase in-depth knowledge about the Sargasso Sea, a critical life-fountain feeding “life-support systems” on our battered planet.


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