Finally, David Attenborough…

It’s hard not love the amazing and sublime depiction of the planet and all its species in David Attenborough‘s work. But the beauty and wonder he depicted rarely had a hint that there was anything going seriously wrong with the planet, that the beauty and wonder was under threat. Too much of a bummer for a TV audience, perhaps.

But now Attenborough plans to rectify this omission:

David Attenborough vividly remembers, nearly 80 years on, his first encounter with one of the worst scourges of the planet. He was a schoolboy. “I remember my headmaster, who was also my science master, saying: ‘Boys, we’ve entered a new era! We’ve entered, we’ll be proud to say, the plastic era. And what is so wonderful about this is we’ve used all our scientific ingenuity to make sure that it’s virtually indestructible. It doesn’t decay, you know, it’s wonderful.’”

Attenborough lets the last word hang in the air, eyebrows and hands raised. Then the hands fall. “Now we dump thousands of tonnes of it, every year, into the sea, and it has catastrophic effects.”

Pieces of plastic in the ocean will soon outnumber fish. They have, in the past few years, been recognised as one of the most pressing problems we face. Fish eat the plastic debris, mistaking it for food, and can choke or starve to death. The long-term effects are not yet understood, but we do know that plastic microparticles are now found in drinking water across the world, as well as throughout our oceans.

Plastics are the latest in a long line of concerns for the 91-year-old naturalist. They are a key theme of his latest work for television, the new series of The Blue Planet, which he will return to writing after our interview. Premiering at the BFI Imax in London this Wednesday – with Prince William as a special guest – the series will focus not only on the marvels of ocean life, but the threats to it, of which plastic is one of the worst. It will also deal with what people can do to help.

It’s often argued that negative news just depresses an audience into helplessness. That has always seemed like a cop out, a plea to be given permission to live as we live, buying every new iPhone, flying frequently to holiday destinations, and chowing down on burgers. Maybe the reality that this lifestyle is killing the planet is depressing. But it is also necessary if there is any hope of mobilizing the human nation into seeking a dramatically different, more planet-friendly, lifestyle. So it is good news that one of the planet’s premier naturalists and film-makers will focus his work on raising these issues and solutions. Finally.

 

“Those Crazy Plastic Cleaning Machines”

I expressed some skepticism that a teenager’s oceanic plastic hoover concept could easily make the jump to the real oceanic world.

Manuel Maqueda at KUMU, is a little more blunt:

If I had a dime for each brilliant idea to “clean up the “Garbage Patch” that has been forwarded to me over the last few years I would be a millionaire.

These gyre cleanup machines, devices and foundations that emerge periodically are not going to happen. However they are likely to get lots of media attention –and distract from the real solutions.

These more or less sophisticated delusions and fantasies of massive offshore cleanups testify to how misunderstood our plastic pollution problem is, and how disconnected we are from nature in general, and from our oceans in particular.

Apart from Maqueda’s justified skepticism about how far it is from the drawing board to the restless, relentless, inhospitable oceans, he argues that our main focus should be on keeping plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place:

Another key detail that seems to be consistently forgotten is that millions of tons of new plastic trash are entering the ocean as we speak. A fairly old and conservative study estimated that 6.4 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year –adding up to over 100 million tons of plastic already polluting our oceans.

Trying to clean this spiraling mess with ships or machines would be like trying to bail out a bathtub with a tea spoon… while the faucet is running! [snip]…

…The inconvenient truth is that we are using plastic, a toxic and very durable material that lasts centuries,for packaging and single use applications, that is to create things are designed to become garbage after a short use. And we are doing this at a massive scale to the benefit of a few corporations, to the detriment of all.

We have created a spiraling consumer culture and then turned it into a throwaway culture. Unless you stop this first, “cleanups” are futile.

That’s all very true, and I wouldn’t hesitate to support a worldwide ban on plastic bags (which are pernicious, and constantly being found en masse in the stomachs of dead sea creatures). Or a worldwide ban on plastic bottles. Or gratuitous plastic packaging (and here comes my usual, increasingly plaintive pitch: just price in the environmental and health impacts, and presto, people change their behavior!).

But still. These are times to think big. To take on the impossible. To look for silver bullets. So at the same time we are working to keep plastic out of the oceans, I am all in favor of garage nerds tinkering and dreaming about ways to remove some of the plastic that is already IN the ocean. Maybe there is some teen out there thinking up some crazy bioengineering or genetic engineering solution that Maqueda cannot even yet imagine. You never know.

(Thanks to Jordan Waltz for flagging Maqueda’s pushback).

Sweeping The Oceans Clean

So a teenager has designed a system to hoover up large amounts of plastic pollution from the ocean:

19-year-old Boyan Slat has unveiled plans to create an Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. The device consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to garbage patches around the world. Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms, where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for recycling.

This is exactly the sort of ambitious, creative, silver-bullet thinking that I believe is one of our only hopes to try and slow or reverse the growing and regrettable impact humans are having everywhere on the planet.

There is, of course, a huge difference between design and execution, and I know enough about the sea, and the law of unintended consequences, to know that successful operation of something like this is far from certain. Still, nicely done and we can only hope that the ranks of technology entrepreneurs aiming to protect the planet keep growing.

Here’s the non-profit Slat founded to try and make his idea a reality.And here is Slat explaining his concept at TedX:

Bye-Bye Baggie

There are many reasons to love Hawaii, but the latest is that it just became the first state in the Union to pass a ban on plastic bags (this is also one more reason to love the Surfrider Foundation, which pushed hard for the ban).

Plastic, and especially plastic bags, is choking the world’s oceans and waterways. So it is nice to see a very direct solution–a ban–instead of a 5 cent tax or some other half measure which doesn’t really get to the root of the problem. Maybe other states will follow Hawaii’s lead when they discover shopping without plastic bags does not in fact cause a catastrophe.

And, of course, I can’t write about plastic bags without posting my all-time favorite plastic bag video, featuring the genius of Werner Herzog: