Craig Leeson: Plastic has become invisible to us

Last Friday we spoke with Craig Leeson in his Hong Kong office. Craig is a journalist for Al Jazeera, but his heart is with the ocean. In the first few scenes of his influential documentary A Plastic Ocean, he talks of his youth – surfing and sailing the Australian coast. It’s this passion for the open water that moved him to bring to light the damaging impact of plastics.

“We’ve worked on A Plastic Ocean for eight years,” he says. “When we finished, what we’d filmed was so devastating, that I personally got quite depressed by it. What we’ve done to this planet is just so terrible, and so much worse than what I expected.”

Craig and his team of researchers and scientists delivered a film that covers the burden of plastics on all corners of the world. While fellow presenter Tanya Streeter explores the murky depths of the Mediterranean, Craig visits impoverished communities in the Pacific who use plastic litter to light kitchen fires or make jewellery, hardly aware of the toxic fumes that shorten their lives.

The filmmakers also visited Lord Howe Island, between Australia and New Zealand. There they were struck by the fate of the local flock of Shearwater birds. These incredible birds can fly for tens of thousands of kilometers, before returning to the burrow where they were born.

“What we found was that the parents find it harder and harder to spot food in the surrounding water, and they often bring back plastics; bottle caps and golf tees that smell like the water they’ve travelled in for miles end up in the stomachs of baby birds. These birds then stop eating because they feel full, but they are full of indigestible trash. A few days after crawling out of their burrow, they die on the beach.”

Craig with research scientist Jennifer Lavers and the shearwaters of Lord Howe Island

Craig with research scientist Jennifer Lavers and the shearwaters of Lord Howe Island

“When we found these birds, it suddenly dawned on me: these were everyday objects that I had thrown away. But there is no such thing as away. We think of plastic as disposable, but it’s not.”

A Plastic Ocean exposes the tough truth that we’ve been looking at plastic all wrong. “We didn’t see it. We became so used to using it, that it became invisible. I didn’t see it until I started looking for it, and then I couldn’t unsee it. Even though I’ve surfed all my life, I didn’t notice it. Now you can’t help but see it. Every beach on the planet is covered in plastic. We travelled to some of the most pristine locations on Earth, and everywhere we saw mountains of plastic.”

Yet there is hope. “What lifted my spirits is when I started screening this film in schools. Kids know. They know it’s not good for the environment, or for human health. We’re seeing a lot of children working on this problem. I was approached by a few youngsters at the UN Ocean conference last week; all of them have their own projects running. They got governments involved, they’re changing things around. They know that it’s up to them.”

Our interview with Craig Leeson is part of our upcoming audio documentary on plastic pollution. Don’t miss it! Follow us on Facebook here. Buy A Plastic Ocean here.

BlogSam Bekemans