Plastic is killing oceans, warns Attenborough

Plastic surgery: An albatross’s carcass is cut open to reveal the trash that it consumed.

Can TV change the world? David Attenborough hopes so. The veteran presenter’s new series Blue Planet II shines a light on the dangers of plastic pollution. He says that we must act now…

A Portuguese man-of-war glowing electric blue. A fangtooth fish baring its horrible gnashers. A mud volcano erupting on the ocean floor.

While filming Blue Planet II, the forthcoming BBC documentary series about ocean habitats, David Attenborough and his team saw some amazing things. But at the same time, television’s favourite naturalist became aware of the threats to these habitats. Chief among them, he says, are rising water temperatures and plastic pollution.

Attenborough has described his shock at witnessing an albatross feed plastic to its young, thinking it was squid. His series will emphasise the environmental damage caused by our failure to recycle. He argues that, more so than with ocean warming, “We could actually do something about plastic right now.”

The statistics are striking. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute – and that number is rising. But fewer than half sold in 2016 were collected for recycling; only 7% of those were turned into new bottles.

Much of the rest ends up in oceans, where it collects in vast patches known as gyres. Often, the shreds of plastic are so small that they are all but impossible to collect. Fish and birds consume this potentially toxic material, and so do we. According to one study, people who eat shellfish ingest 11,000 bits of plastic every year.

Attenborough believes Blue Planet II can make a difference. Indeed, TV has often been credited with shaping politics. Historians say public opinion on the Vietnam war began to turn when American news anchor Walter Cronkite called it a “quagmire”. In the UK, the brutally realistic homelessness drama Cathy Come Home helped bring about new laws and the charity Crisis.

Other shows may have influenced society in more subtle ways. With its multiracial cast, Star Trek is seen to have spurred the Civil Rights movement. Attenborough has been making nature documentaries for half a century, and many argue that they have been a boon to the environmentalist movement.

So can TV change the world?

Blue planet blues

“Of course,” say some. The average Briton watches almost four hours of TV per day. Images are often the best way to raise awareness of an issue. Inevitably, public opinion is shaped by well-made, persuasive shows. And that leads to real, meaningful action. The fight against plastic starts here.

“You’d think so,” reply others. But during Attenborough’s career, species have continued to go extinct at an alarming rate. In rare cases, TV has an impact, but the fact is that people generally view it as mere escapism. What we see on our screens somehow feels unreal. Blue Planet II may move you, but let’s face it: you’re unlikely to do much about it.

You Decide

  1. Are you excited about Blue Planet II? Why (not)?
  2. Is TV a force for good or bad?

Activities

  1. In groups of three, design a poster to raise awareness of plastic pollution. Start your research by reading the links in Become An Expert.
  2. Conduct an interview with a local business in which you ask them about their policies on plastic and recycling.

Some People Say...

“If we [humans] disappeared overnight, the world would probably be better off.”

– David Attenborough

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Plastic pollution is getting worse fast, not least because the plastic used in bottles and packaging can take centuries to degrade. According to one report, at the current rate there will be as much plastic as fish in the seas by 2050. (This statistic is based on very rough estimates.) Other research found that pretty much all seabirds will eat plastic by then too, severely harming their health.
What do we not know?
Whether things will improve. There are encouraging signs. Deposit return schemes, which give consumers a financial incentive to recycle plastic bottles, are being introduced in a growing number of countries and US states. Companies are beginning to replace plastic products with less polluting materials: Pret A Manger became the latest do so in the UK this week.

Word Watch

Blue Planet II
The seven-part series is a sequel to The Blue Planet, which aired to great acclaim in 2001. You can watch the first episode on BBC One on Sunday October 29th.
Albatross
An oceanic bird whose wingspan can reach 11 feet.
Rising
Much of the increase in demand comes from China, where newly wealthy, health-conscious urbanites are avoiding potentially contaminated tap water.
Potentially toxic
The latest research shows that plastics can also ooze chemical substances into the water, affecting even those fish that do not directly eat the material. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues and more.
11,000 bits
The body absorbs less than 1% of these, however.
Quagmire
A bog, and thus a hugely complex, dangerous situation. After Cronkite used the word in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson remarked, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country."
Civil Rights movement
The African-American actress Nichelle Nichols considered leaving the show at one point, but Martin Luther King convinced her not to. "Don't you realise how important your character is?" he told her.

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