On Midway atoll in the North Pacific, dozens of young albatross lie dead on the sand, their stomachs filled with cigarette lighters, toy soldiers and other small plastic objects their parents have mistaken for food.
That sad and surreal sight, says Hong Kong-based Australian film director Craig Leeson, is one of the many symptoms of a plague afflicting the world’s oceans, food chains and human communities: the onslaught of discarded plastic.
“Every piece of plastic ever made since the fifties exists in some shape or form on the planet,” Leeson told AFP. “We throw plastic into a bin, it’s taken away from us and we never see it again — but it still comes back at us.”
Over the past year, Leeson has been following the menace of plastic from Sardinia to Canada to the Indian Ocean for a film that aims to combine the art of nature documentary with a campaigning quest.
Provisionally called “Away”, the film — backed by David Attenborough and the UK-based Plastic Oceans Foundation — brings together new research on the spread of plastic with missions by “explorers” such as Ben Fogle to show the diverse effects of plastic trash.
Its message is that while you may throw out your plastic goods, they are never really thrown “away”.
Crews under Leeson’s direction have so far swum with blue whales, taken a deep-sea submarine to the depths of the Mediterranean and found swirling clumps of plastic trash in the Indian Ocean.
They have used a harpoon-like instrument to take biopsies from whales and dissected a dead Corsican turtle in a Siena laboratory — “dead turtles are the smelliest things you can imagine”, he says. Sea lions are yet to come.
The foundation cites research showing that at least 250 species have ingested or become entangled in plastic in the seas. They put forward plastic ingestion as one of the main causes of “skinny whale syndrome”, in which whales are discovered mysteriously starved.
The 250 million tonnes of plastic we discard each year make their way for thousands of miles around the oceans, and Leeson’s team — many of whom have backgrounds in the BBC’s Natural History Unit — are determined to document this in spectacular fashion.
But beyond this, their goal is to show that the environmental damage is systemic, going far beyond a series of water-borne trash heaps.
In fact, Leeson said, the mass of plastic the size of Texas often said to exist in the North Pacific is a myth. Instead, particles of plastic lurk there invisibly, in seemingly clear water.
“If you trawl for it with these special nets that they’ve developed, you come back with this glutinous mass — it’s microplastics that are in the water along with the plankton,” he said.
“The problem is that it’s being mistaken for food and being eaten by plankton eaters, who are then eaten by bigger fish, and so it goes on, and it ends up on our dinner tables.”
Studies have linked this with health conditions in humans including cancer, diabetes and immune disruption.
And it is not just the plastic itself that enters the food chain, but other man-made substances from sources such as industrial waste that attach themselves to plastics in the water.
The team will be shooting until mid-2012 and will also visit communities living beside rivers that are heavily polluted with plastic to see its more direct effects on human life.
This is not the first high-profile campaign on the subject: Greenpeace, currently researching plastic in the Arctic Ocean, has warned that urgent action is needed to address the sources of plastic waste, and campaign group WWF calls the problem “staggering”.
But Leeson hopes the images in his film will jolt viewers out of their complacency about rubbish that apparently disappears into the waste collection system.
“When you see a toy soldier or a lighter that’s manufactured in China that ends up in the stomach of an albatross at Midway Point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that just shows you how much effect you’re having on the environment,” he said.
Leeson will not divulge all the findings from new research carried out for the film, but it is clear the message will be an alarming one.
Does he think his team can compete in the busy market for alarming messages, currently dominated by the threat of climate change?
“Clearly climate change is one of the most pressing issues, if not the most pressing issue that we face, because it affects everything we do,” Leeson says.
But plastic and emissions are directly linked: plastic is estimated to account for around eight percent of the world’s fossil fuel use, half of it in energy consumed during its manufacturing.
The film will question the “disposable lifestyle” behind discarded plastic, but not advocate banning the substance altogether.
It will also look at solutions to the waste mountain, including plastic recycling and biogenesis, in which plastic is reduced back to its core elements while producing energy.
An initial aim, says Leeson, is to persuade consumers and manufacturers to reconsider their use of disposable plastics such as mineral water bottles.
He says responsibility for waste cuts across different environmental issues, including climate.
“Plastic is part of that, but also if we are raising awareness about issues such as plastic then we?re raising awareness about what does actually affect the planet we live on, and I think that?s a good thing,” he said.