A tear and a smile – Sir David and the Plastic Ocean

sea-2361247_1280Sir David Attenborough is always one of the best if not the best of ambassadors when it comes to giving nature’s plea a human voice (how would we listen otherwise?) and in appealing to our sense of responsibility for the world we live in.

In fact, living up to his knighthood, that is perhaps pretty much what the role of a knight should be these days. The idea of purposefulness, of something that is greater than us, which exceeds our existence as an individual on earth has probably always been at the heart of knighthood, although the conditions into which it is embedded have so profoundly changed throughout history.

The good thing in Sir David’s case is the uplifting mood he always manages to convey however harrowing the things might be he is presenting.

If you haven’t yet watched Blue Planet II, produced by BBC earth and Alucia Productions, it will be available on iPlayer or on DVD very soon. I also highly recommend the free poster you can order here from the Open University’s website.

Some of the things that have emerged from the programme were more than just a little dispiriting. But I just forced myself to watch it nonetheless, as I believe in confronting oneself with the way things are, staying informed while trying to glean the positive things about it, such as the heightened awareness we now have of our impact on the environment, or rather the damage our lifestyle inflicts on it, which is something a lot of us just won’t give up. What we have gradually come to realise is, at least in larger numbers, that it is not the environment and us up against each other but as we adversely affect the world around us, we are ultimately doing it to ourselves, even if we can’t see it. Yet. It makes our hearts bleed if we have any true humanity left in us, and for once we should just leave the constant race for new cars, new gadgets etc. be for a while.

We must cease in seeing ourselves as separate from the environment or nature while looking at it as something that surrounds us which is only of some relevance to us when we go and visit. Only when we start to look at it as a living entity that is also within us, inscribed, innate and ingrained, with which we are inextricably entwined, only then will we understand how essentially vital it is to not just protect it but actually to live in it and with it as we once did.

One sometimes thinks it is all best left undisturbed. But I think we have to change it in a way so that we participate in it. In this regard, Richard Louv is one of the primary advocates of this renewed approach, and you can read more about it here.

But just let this sink in:

  • 8 Million square tons of plastic is washed out into our oceans every year.

The problem is that these parts are ingested and kill the animals that mistake them for food. On South Georgia in the Antarctic, where the Blue Planet Team ambitiously filmed and brought beautiful footage back to our screens, there has been a rapid decline of Albatross chicks over the last decade. It is not only big plastic bags or plastic bottles and their lids, which seem to be all over the place, but it can also be tiny bits, like a plastic toothpick that pierced a little bird’s stomach and thereby killed it. So it is not just the plastic bag a turtle swallows, thinking it is a jellyfish or the whale who dies because it has been ingesting masses of plastic while it should have been krill and fish and consequently dies with a stomach full of undigestible litter, but also something of which we might think as being inconspicuous and not harmful like…

  •  Microplastics (i. e. the plastic debris breaks down into ever smaller particles)

Another harrowing threat which along with the industrial waste chemicals increase the levels of toxins in seawater. As we know, the relationship between a mother and her young in mammalian species is exceptionally close as a female mammal doesn’t simply cease to be interested in her offspring after releasing her spawn or laying eggs. Nurturing and feeding the young is like an extended birthing process if you will with complete dependency. As was reported by the Blue Planet II team, there is evidence here that a dolphin mother’s contaminated milk can kill her calf. Does this surprise anyone?

But how did the toxins get in there? Apart from the fact that these creatures have to live in an environment we actively destroy, it also that they are very high up the food chain. Microorganisms mistake the tiny bits for food, these are then ingested by fish which in turn are eaten by larger predators such as seals, whales and dolphins etc. And, by the way, also by us!

Yet one uplifting example Sir David talked about was the assembly of sperm whales of the Sri Lankan Coast. Since the end of the civil war in the country in 2009, people can move more freely and fish the waters surrounding the island. One of the people that were interviewed, a young man, told the team of 300 sperm whales he had spotted. There hadn’t been as many as that in over 100 years. Since the so-called commercial whaling moratorium in 1986, the numbers of whales did pick up a bit again. While this is encouraging, there is still so much more that needs to be done.

But what can one do as an individual? I can hear the hopelessness and despair of some but likewise the ignorance and carelessness of a lot of my fellow humans. And yet, we have brought this on, somehow we will have to solve it. It is a bit too much to ask to take on everything as an individual, and a lot has changed over the years. Still, a beach clean is just desperately trying to suppress the symptoms.

Here are some little changes and very easy ones, which won’t cost you anything (the reverse is true) and just require a little forward thinking and cooperation. And no extra time (which always seems to be the major issue these days):

  • If you’re not ordering organic veggie boxes (it depends on where you live and not everybody can afford it) try and buy fruit and veg with less packaging. You can buy kiwis, carrots, parsnips etc. loose and not wrapped in a plastic bag. In some cases, however, there is little choice, such as berries and so on, but it is a start.


  • Don’t use the little plastic bags provided to put your baking potatoes or other loose fruit and veg in to put them into yet another plastic bag later. Just put them in your cloth or a durable plastic bag or maybe basket, just as granny would have done.


  • Stop using plastic close pegs. When I pegged out the washing the other day, using some of our wooden, old-fashioned ones (yes, that’s a good word sometimes), without aluminium or wire around it, I found some of the plastic ones still stuck on the line. Some bits had broken off, I tried to remove it, and tiny bits, almost microscopical, ended up on the grass, my fingers and so small, they were smeared all over my hand. Never again!


  • Need I say it: Recycle. And I don’t mean just taking it to the local recycling and thereby once again abrogating responsibility, but also trying to reuse some of it as storage containers or even pots to grow herbs in your kitchen and the like.


  • And last but not least demand less packaging. I did some weeks ago. Up until recently, Boots used to send out orders in cardboard boxes. To my surprise, the last time I ordered my swim&gym shampoo, I received two big plastic carrier bags lined with bubble wrap and every single bottle wrapped in another separate plastic bag. I was annoyed, irritated and a little angry. I phoned Boots to complain about it. The excuse was that there had been other complaints from customers about leaks. The shampoo I ordered already comes in squeezable plastic bottles so it is very unlikely that there’d be any breaks. The lid sits on the bottle so tightly that the chances of them opening by themselves are practically nil. It has been noted down but I don’t expect to hear anything from them. But next time I order I’ll be sure to make it quite plain again. A big company like Boots should be at the forefront to tackle these problems, as they have the resources to do it. I’ll be curious to see what happens next time….

Once again, the list could be extended, as always. More research and practical ideas lie ahead.

3 thoughts on “A tear and a smile – Sir David and the Plastic Ocean

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