Interview: Anti-Plastic Filmaker Craig Leeson

Craig Leeson’s documentary work has pushed the threat posed to our planet by plastic waste to the forefront of public attention.

Craig Leeson diving in a plastic ocean (c) Craig Leeson

Since the award-winning documentary A Plastic Ocean was released last year, the film has been screened in over 70 countries, has ranked number one on iTunes in the US, UK and Canada, and has received 14 film-festival awards. The trailer alone has drawn over a million views on YouTube. The film, which highlights the plight of living with trillions of pieces of plastic around us, has, in the space of a year, also driven policy and regulation. Along with the reverberations from a BBC David Attenborough documentary, Blue Planet II, it kicked off Australia’s effort to tackle plastic pollution and helped propel a ban on Styrofoam in Peru and microbeads in the UK. The team behind the documentary is now helping to effect plastic-ban policies in six different countries and collaborating with 10 UN country offices on their policies.

“It’s fair to say the film exceeded our expectations,” says Craig Leeson, Tasmanian-born director of A Plastic Ocean, with characteristic modesty. “It touched a chord with a lot of people.” We’re sat at a raw wooden table in his light-filled 18th-floor studio in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district. At his feet is an enormous grey Shetland pony of a dog, Boris, a Borzoodle (a poodle crossed with a borzoi) that Leeson adopted a couple of years ago. Boris goes with Leeson wherever he goes, whether at home, work, or even surfing at Big Wave Bay where the two can be found on many a morning.

Leeson continues: “The timing turned out to be perfect because when we started the film nine years ago, there was very little science or knowledge about plastic. If you said to someone the bottle they were drinking from was causing a problem, they would look at you as if you were from another planet. “They didn’t understand and neither did I.”

The documentary set the ball rolling on a campaign of awareness. A Plastic Ocean begins when Leeson, hoping to make a film about the blue whale, discovers enormous amounts of plastic, far from land. The film showed that each year 400-million tonnes of plastic is produced and 40 percent of it is single-use, meaning it is only used once before being thrown away. More than eight-million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s seas each year, with most of that coming from land. That is the equivalent of dumping a rubbish truck of plastic into the sea every minute. Leeson understands the importance of harnessing the film’s momentum.

Leeson dissects seabirds filled with plastic debris in his film (c) Craig Leeson

So, what next? Leeson is now looking for funding to produce another film focusing on the effects of plastic exposure on the human system. “We will be taking a look at the endocrine disruptive disorders and how much plastic we have to consume to be affected,” he says. “With the first film we touched upon the notion that almost everyone on the planet ends up consuming plastic at some point. Even if you live far from the sea, if you eat from a plastic package or drink from a plastic bottle it will be in your system.”

He recalls the devastating effects of plastic on human health in the community of Tuvalu, a coral atoll located 800 miles from Fiji. “When they started using plastic products they did what they had always done — throw them on the ground — and it built up very quickly.” The effects of living on a literal pile of plastic became evident in Tuvalu all too quickly. “There were 30 people in that community and within the last decade, eight had got cancer. No one had conceived a child in many years.”

Part of the reason Leeson wants to focus on health for the next film, he says, is to give governments ammunition against industry lobby groups, to change legislation. “Governments are beholden to large lobby groups that act on behalf of business and industry. The only way we can outvoice that strong influence is when we have something we can give a government that says, ‘this will save money, as well as lives’. When we start showing governments the human health effect and the cost that would have on their budget.”

Ultimately, says Leeson, his goal is to end “single-use plastic addiction” but to do that in a way that helps businesses, because so many rely on single-use plastic. “We need to get governments and business leaders to structure a timely exit of single-use plastic. Ultimately, I would like it to be declared toxic to speed this process up,” says Leeson.

The process is happening. Kenya, Taiwan, Vanuatu, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Canada and Australia are leading the way on banning plastic bottles, bags and microbeads. France will ban plastic plates, cups and cutlery from 2020hi Industry is changing too. Today, the list of major companies working towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier has grown to 11 – Amcor, Ecover, evian, L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Walmart and Werner & Mertz – together representing more than 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging per year. But above all, says Leeson, people can’t wait for governments and industry to implement changes.

“We’ve all got a stake in this, it is not just ‘us against them’. We’ve proven we don’t need single-use plastic —we did very well without it for eons — and we all need to remove it from our lives. Immediately.”