By Sarah Bergen
The first green film of the semester, Plastic Paradise, shows Rider students that while plastic may infiltrate every aspect of our lives, it also poses an enormous threat to our oceans, millions of species and even our own health.
The 2013 documentary, being screened in Sweigart Auditorium Sept. 16 and 17, begins with a scene that makes students’ stomachs lurch. A scientist cuts open a recently deceased albatross, a large seabird, and discovers the cause of death — a stomach full of plastic. The film then takes a detour and presents a history lesson on plastics, but the images of albatross guts come back later to haunt students.
According to the film, plastic is unlike any other substance on the planet in that it will never naturally break down. This means that every molecule of plastic ever created is still somewhere on our planet today.
After its birth in the early 20th century, the plastic industry saw a growth of over 3,000 percent, producing 20 million pounds in 1927 and 650 million pounds by 1943. Those numbers have only continued to grow.
The film also mentions that the United States will produce 115 billion pounds of new plastic this year. From bottles and toys to food packaging and cars, plastic can be found almost everywhere.
Next, students are introduced to the film’s director and producer, journalist Angela Sun, who sets out on a mission to uncover the truth about rumors of a “garbage island” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Said to be as big as Texas, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch soon becomes the star of the show.
After some research, Sun discovers Midway Atoll, an island located halfway between the west coast of the U.S. and east coast of Japan. She knows that going to Midway will provide her with some answers, but the island sits on government-controlled territory, making it one of the most remote places on earth.
After three years of cutting through red tape, Sun hops on a private plane to Midway and soon finds herself surrounded by mountains of garbage and thousands of albatrosses. In fact, the film states that the island is the nesting place for 2 million albatrosses, or 70 percent of the species. However, many albatrosses do not make it off of the island because they are ingesting plastic. This is when the disturbing images of plastic fishing net material and plastic fragments pouring from the guts of a dead albatross begin to make sense.
In the film, Matt Brown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge Manager on Midway, explains that tens of thousands of pounds of garbage wash up on Midway’s shores every year. From computer monitors to massive truck tires, garbage from North America and Asia is building up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Next, Sun sets out into the ocean with Capt. Charles Moore, the man who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the late 1990s. They travel out into the ocean and Sun is shocked when she dives into the water and is surrounded by miles of floating garbage and plastic.
One form of plastic that is wreaking havoc on coral reefs and marine life is discarded nylon fishing nets. The nets roll along the ocean floor, much like tumbleweeds, snagging reefs and breaking off coral heads and destroying what are the second most diverse ecosystems on the planet after rainforests.
According to a 2009 study by the United Nations, there are an estimated 640,000 tons of discarded fishing nets in the oceans around the world. That number increases every day as fishing boats discard their nets, making them death traps for sea creatures.
However, plastics are not just killing wildlife; they are killing us, as well. Biphenyl A (BPA) is a chemical that makes plastic hard and can be found in baby bottles, plastic beverage bottles and food can liners, to name a few. According to the film, BPA mimics estrogen because it was originally designed as birth control for women. However, the chemical instead made its way into plastics and, in turn, into the bodies of 93 percent of Americans. The effects of BPA can be seen in the dramatic decrease in the age at which girls reach puberty, explains the film.
An even more shocking effect of plastics on human health stems directly from the seafood that we eat. The film explains that small pieces of plastic in the ocean absorb organic pollutants from seawater, are then eaten by fish, and finally end up on our plates and in our bodies. Cancer, miscarriage, premature birth and mental disorders are only some of the effects these chemicals can have on humans.
Plastic is a material that infiltrates every aspect of our lives, and it is slowly destroying our health and our planet. What can we do to fix this? The film explains that the only answer is in the consumer — if we stop buying plastic bottles and using plastic bags, the producer will stop making them. There are simple alternatives like reusable glass bottles and cloth shopping bags. It is up to us to bring about change by simply being aware of the plastics that we are consuming.
Printed in the 9/17/14 edition.