“A Plastic Ocean” Documentary Screening by ASCE

On Friday, Jan. 26, UNO’s chapter of the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) sponsored a film screening in the engineering auditorium. “A Plastic Ocean” is an award-winning documentary canvassing the widespread plastic pollution in the world’s natural environments. Released in March 2017, the film is directed by journalist Craig Leeson. In the process of searching for blue whales, he and his team discovered the effects of plastic pollution on the ocean and uncovered relevant solutions.

According to Leeson, US citizens dispose of 38 billion plastic bottles annually. By 2015, humans had created 6.3 billion metric tons in plastic waste, according to a study by Roland Geyer et al. published in the scholarly journal “Science Advances.” Of this, only 9 percent has been recycled and 79 percent was carried to landfills or the natural environment. This study states that plastic requires at least 400 years to fully deteriorate.

“How could a disposable product be made of a material that’s indestructible?” commented free-diver Tanya Streeter in the film.

Before the screening, event hosts passed around water and popcorn, and ASCE event organizer Patrick James discussed the documentary’s subject matter. He introduced himself to the audience of about 14 students, faculty and relatives, and recognized a “distinguished guest,” Dr. Norma Jean Mattei, 2017 president of ASCE, the oldest engineering society in the nation. Then James took the time to describe some of the UNO chapter’s activities, including the annual statewide concrete canoe and bridge-building competitions.

James mentioned the group’s recent experience conducting a lakeside trash cleanup.

“It was a scary amount of material we were picking up,” he said of the volume of waste the team found around the water. “There’s a surprising amount of plastic litter on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.”

Then he explained a similar but larger-scale problem: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Propelled by currents in the North Pacific, this is the largest known patch of its kind, consisting of debris, chemical sludge and plastic.

“All the plastic that’s been polluting these oceans has been floating and swirling around in these gyres,” said James.

As for the possibility of a solution, “We can’t just get a big net and fish the plastic out. It’s a bit more complicated than that,” said James. Not only would such a device also scoop up fish, it would fail to trap the vast swathes of microscopic plastic particles that have broken down and become part of the food chain. James described the journey of this microplastic as it makes its way up the chain through plankton, then small fish, and finally larger fish until “we eat these larger fish and ingest the toxins ourselves.”

Plastic Oceans Foundation’s website urges people to host screenings of the film and join the movement by “pledging to refuse single-use plastics.” Those interested can check plasticoceans.org, sign up for the email newsletter and donate to the nonprofit organization. The namesake documentary is available for purchase or rental on the website, but it can also be rented through Google’s services or viewed instantly on Netflix.

Those looking to take action in the community can find opportunities through Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LBPF), popularly known as organizers of the “Save Our Lake” and “Save Our Coast” campaigns. Among many other volunteer projects, LBPF is hosting an annual Spring Sweep on Saturday, March 24 from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m at various locations around the lake.

More information is available on saveourlake.org. James displayed information about this event before the screening, encouraging people to attend.

“If anyone’s interested in getting more involved with this project, just show up in your work clothes. They offer food for the picnic,” he said.

Aside from volunteering, individuals can reduce their own plastic consumption to help the environment. The Oceanic Society’s Brian Hutchinson suggests doing this by simply “refusing any single-use plastics that you do not need and purchasing … reusable versions of those products.” Single-use plastics include but are not limited to water bottles, plastic cutlery, plastic bags, straws and to-go food containers.

Similarly, Hutchinson explains that face washes, body scrubs and toothpastes containing microbeads “have become a growing source of ocean plastic pollution.” To avoid them, he suggests remaining wary of products with ingredients polyethylene and polypropylene.

Hutchinson also mentions supporting bans on plastic products. The state of California, for example, has banned plastic bags entirely. Bangladesh, Rwanda, China, Taiwan, Macedonia and Kenya have similarly banned plastic bags, and in 2016 France famously outlawed plastic dishes, cups and flatware.

Further steps include the Jan. 10 promise from UK Prime Minister Theresa May to lessen plastic pollution in a 25-year Environment Plan.

“In years to come,” said May, “I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly.”