Award-winning journalist Craig Leeson has attracted global attention with his startling documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’. An entrepreneur and a global evangelist against single-use plastic, Leeson spends his time leading global awareness to counter the plastic menace by highlighting its impact on humans and other species.  

As part of Earth.Org’s ‘Our Planet Series’, Leeson sat with Earth.Org’s co-founder Marco Pellerey for a fireside chat to discuss his documentary, his mission, and his hopes about the future. 

Marco: Over 90% of the plastics in the world are not recycled. Isn’t it everybody’s responsibility to do something about plastic? How successful were you in eliminating plastic from your daily life? Is it an easy thing to do?

Craig: It is a hard question, particularly for a person who made a film about the problem. It is extraordinarily difficult to remove single-use plastic from your life, particularly for our generation, because it has become our habit. 

Recently, I was opening a conference in Switzerland, where members of corporates and governments were present. In order to grab their attention, I stood up and opened my speech saying ‘I am here to tell you about my addiction. I am a recovering addict.’ Everybody was looking at me and going ‘what is he talking about.’ Then I took them through. 

The idea of single-use plastic was brought to me by the producer of the film. Because I was not aware of it until I was made aware of it

As I said in many of my talks, I am an ocean guy. I surf. I dive. I make films about the ocean.  So if I did not know about the plastic problem in the ocean, how can I expect somebody from Mexico or Idaho or Singapore or someone who is completely removed from the oceans and lives in the mountains to understand the problem. I was oblivious about it myself.

I realised that plastic had become such a part of my life that it had become invisible to me. I just did not see it until it was pointed out to me, and I was told it was causing specific problems. And then when I started looking for it, I saw it everywhere. I saw it between my toes when I was on the beach. I saw it in the seaweed. I saw it floating between my legs while I was surfing. 

Once you see it, when you start to look at the problems it causes; when you investigate the human health consequences, you cannot unsee it. And that’s one of the important points we touched upon in the film for the very first time and something that I have been following up with a great deal of interest. I talk to governments about the human health consequences of plastic, and that’s when they start to listen. These are such powerful problems that they rise above the noise of lobbyists, who are concerned about other issues.

Human health is a big-budget issue for many finance ministers. So to answer your question, I did not know it (plastic) was a problem 10 years ago. And it was until someone pointed out to me that it became a problem. That’s what I wanted to do with the film: to point it out to everybody else.

The societal impact of plastic and pollution is the angle to which people are susceptible. When you speak to large audience from different cultures, whether they are policymakers or common people, would you rather connect with them by saying ‘plastic is bad because it affects your health’, or ‘we should have more empathy towards the world in which we live in  and consider other animals?’ Which one of these arguments is more powerful?

I think it’s both. I think we can all agree that the world needs a lot more empathy. Empathy is the key to understanding. In the film, I say with knowing comes caring, and with caring comes change. Because if you don’t know, you can’t care. So the first stage is to know. And once you know,  you can choose to care, or not. Of course, we choose to care depending on how connected we feel to something. 

When we start to look at the human health consequences of single-use plastic, we realise that it actually affects the next generation; that means our kids. I do not have children, but I am awfully worried about the next generation. 

I am also worried about other species because I am a naturalist. I grew up on the beach and I studied wildlife since I was little. I understand the animals we share space with are intelligent. They feel the pain and have other emotions as we do. Because we cannot physically communicate with them, we think they do not have the intelligence or the ability to show emotions. But I have seen it in the wild. I have seen it up close. I have experienced it. 

I felt personally responsible when we were filming shearwater chicks on Lord Howe Island — 500 km east of Sydney. It’s the very southern tip of the great barrier coral reefs. It’s a beautiful island with a small population. There is no plastic production facility there. Yet, when you walk on the island, you see plastic pieces near the barrows, where the shearwaters bring up their babies. 

Shearwaters travel several miles to catch fish from the ocean. When plastic remains in the ocean for 10 or 20 years, it develops algae. Sometimes fish lays eggs on the plastic pieces. With marine growth over them, the floating debris smell like marine organisms, which attract the shearwater. The birds dive down and swallow the plastic, fly back to their barrows, and feed them to their young chicks. 

On the island, we found dozens of baby birds starved to death. When they eat plastic pieces,  they feel full, but they don’t get any nourishment from them. They just fall and die when they are about to take their first flight near the beach. 

When we were doing necropsies on these birds, we found a tiny bird’s stomach bulging with plastic. There were 267 pieces of plastic inside! When I saw the first red bottle cap among them, I thought that cap could have been the one I had thrown away 10 years ago. And if that cap did not kill this bird, it might have been picked up by another bird. Because 90% of birds have swallowed plastic at some point in their life. It is highly likely that I was responsible for the death of marine animals or birds all over the world. 

It hit me then. I could see the pain and suffering these animals were going through. And when you have such experience it has a profound effect on you. Then I knew we had to get the film out and make people see what we were seeing. The whole idea was to take people along with us through this journey as we were experiencing all of this. 

A few years ago, I remember seeing pictures of the birds filled with plastic lying on the beach. I remember thinking ‘that’s not real, someone is doing this because they want to get their point across.’ But when I saw it in your movie, I connected the dots.

When we went to Midway Island in the North Pacific Ocean, we found not dozens but hundreds of albatross birds dead on the beach. These are big birds. And as their bodies decompose, through their ribs, you see the colors of plastic coming out. As you say, it looks surreal. It looks like a grotesque piece of art. 

I was truly shocked by that. And it is depressing to watch. So let’s talk about optimism. There are many reasons to be optimistic. 90% of the scientists who ever lived are alive today. Technology is exploding at an unprecedented rate. Do you believe technology is the solution? 

Before answering that, let me go back a bit. When we finished making this film after four years of production process visiting 22 different countries, and watched the four-hour-long first cut, there were 20 minutes of silence among the producers. Everybody was just looking at the screen. I realised that we could not release the film because it was so depressing. My producer then looked at me and said we had to reshoot the third act of the film. 

We then raised money and reshoot for six months to make the third act all about solutions.

I wanted everybody to leave the cinema with the thought that they were personally responsible for the problem like I did. And they should start doing something themselves at home to solve the problem; whether it is stopping the use of straws or taking a bag to the supermarket and reusing it. We included every possible solution in the movie. So, optimism was incredibly important in the film. 

What made me optimistic after releasing the film were the kids I interacted with. We toured schools all around the world with a 20-minute long version of the film. I was also doing talks for bankers, governments, ministers and all sorts of smart people. With adults, I had to explain everything from the beginning. But, the kids already knew about the issue. All they wanted to know was ‘how to solve the problem, where are the tools, who’s going to help us get them, and when do we start’. It made me so optimistic that I was able to go around the world and show the film feeling empowered.

Thinking about the next generation is important for adults because that’s what should drive us. That’s what drove me when we went around screening.

Going back to your question, is technology the answer, no. It’s not. It’s one of the answers. The danger of relying on technology thinking it is the answer is that we leave it up to the scientists and entrepreneurs to solve the problem while we keep on using single-use plastic. We cannot encourage people to do that. 

Banning single-use plastic is the number one answer and solution. 

People are fascinated by entrepreneurs, who focus on space exploration, colonizing mars, etc. Space X is attracting a lot of attention. Do we need an ‘Earth X’? What do you think about the fact that people focus too much on starts and not on this planet?

That’s a hard question because I am a bit of a space cadet. I am a dreamer. It is very difficult for me to believe that we are the only civilisation in the infinite expanse of the universe. I firmly believe in science, and we have to look at other places in the universe to understand our place here.

But colonising another planet that has no oxygen, no plant life, and no sustenance when we got a perfect island here seems ludicrous to me. We know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the oceans. More people have been to the moon than to the bottom of the ocean. That is crazy. 

What we know from the recent expedition is that there is single-use plastic down in the Mariana Trench — more than 10,000 metres below the surface of the ocean.  

Those are the places where technology won’t work because we do not have any technology that can clean up plastic anywhere in the oceans let alone the deepest trench on the planet Earth. 

So we need to sort out the problems on earth before getting to any place that does not support life. 

Your documentary was an amazing success. It was even screened at the United Nations.  How was your experience interacting with the audience at the UN?

We screened the 22-minute-version of the film for the 700 members at the UN General Assembly in New York. Even though I knew we had a great film, it was not until that moment I realised how powerful storytelling can be. How it can bring people together on the same page. The film had done that. And that’s why David Attenborough called it ‘the most important film of all time’. 

Sitting up, we noticed that we were served water in plastic bottles. Before we started the discussion about the film, I told the audience ‘I don’t wish to embarrass my host, because that is not my intention. But I would like to talk about the invisibility of plastic.’ I asked them if anyone could see the invisible plastic around them. Everybody was looking around. I had to literally pick up and show them the bottles. I heard the gasps across the auditorium. No one had paid much attention to the bottles until I pointed out. 

Those bottles turned out to be a really good tool to talk about invisibility and problems of single-use plastic. 

You are part of a music band. It’s your passion. In your life, how do music and your profession intertwine?

My band is called Uranus. We have five members. The band was named by the lead singer way. Not by me. I know the joke never gets old (chuckles).  

Music is such a wonderful thing that brings people together. Not just people, animals too. Every single species has music of their own; from the blue whale to the smallest of insects. That’s what I love about music. 

My father was a concert pianist. He was actually a journalist, who studied piano six hours every day.  He tried to teach me piano, but it was too technical. It was boring for me. 

I was then thinking ‘what musical instrument that would drive my parents nuts? The answer was the guitar. I did some odd jobs and bought an electric guitar with the money. I have been torturing my parents ever since (chuckles). 

Our band has released an album called ‘Plugged’. The next one will be called ‘Unplugged’. (Audience chuckles) So yeah, for me, music is about bringing people together. I enjoy music as a stress relief. 

Moving from Uranus to glaciers, which is the subject of your next documentary, Iceland recently held a funeral for Okjokull glacier, which had melted away. The plaque at the ceremony reads “in the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” Can you comment on that?

My next film is called ‘The Last Glaciers’ — very much for this reason. I started this project similar way I started ‘A Plastic Ocean’. Four years ago, I was taken to the Alps, where I came across glaciers receding because of climate change. 

Later in Hong Kong, while I was giving a talk about ‘A Plastic Ocean’, I met a scientist, who had been to travel around the world collecting samples from glaciers to study the atmospheric gases trapped in the ice. It was the first time anybody ever explained climate change to me in the simplest words. It set off so many light bulbs about the trip that I had just undertaken to The Alps. So I wanted to know more about it. I went to Grenoble in France and followed him and his team to learn what they were studying.

Their studies showed how the greenhouse gases trapped in these glaciers were being released into the atmosphere. Their oscillation graphs showed how levels of methane and CO2 in the atmosphere have doubled in the last 120 years. 

As I traveled around, I learned more. In Peru, half of the Qori Kalis glaciers are gone since 1990. In Antartica, they (the scientists) are recording the loss of ice the size of titanic every 10 seconds. The same thing is happening in the Arctic. The ice is breaking up exposing the deep blue ocean to the sunlight which increases the heat in the atmosphere causing a positive feedback loop. 

In a month, we will be climbing the Himalayas to see the glaciers there. The Himalayas,  which is considered as the third pole, have so many glaciers that all the water in every major river system in Asia originate from there. What we now find is that these glaciers are melting three times faster than originally thought 40 years ago. If that ice melts, it is going to affect two billion people. 

Can you tell us about the fundraising efforts you have initiated for this project?

It cost us 4.5 million to make ‘A Plastic Ocean’. We used two submarines to take us to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. We had the best cinematography crew on the planet with three big cinematic 4K cameras underwater. It took us two years to find the people who would understand the importance of the documentary and ready to fund the project. 

Now, we have been shooting ‘The Last Glaciers’ for the last three years. Because we have not been able to get external funding for the project, so far, I and my producer have been putting the money. 

Most big corporations that have the ability to fund this project are in some ways contributing to climate change. If they are not fossil fuel companies, they are companies that use heavy transportation. We cannot go to car companies like Toyota or Mercedes, even if they are keen to get involved. 

I also did not want to get involved with companies that are going to use our product for greenwashing. 

So in the end, we decided, we will go as far as we can with our own money. We are starting a crowdfunding initiative next week to raise $120,000 to fund our expedition to the Himalayas. We also believe that getting people involved in the funding stage will also drive the audience and will help us market the product through social media. So, crowdfunding in a way will solve two problems. 

Audience questions
Do you think governments can devise a viable recycling system?

Absolutely, the government can do it. But personally, I believe that plastic manufacturers should be responsible for such tasks. 

In my film, I showed how Germany successfully created the first closed-loop system of the circular economy because they used legislation to make the plastic manufacturers responsible. The plastic manufacturers were forced to pay for collecting the single-use plastic back. In Germany, every supermarket has reverse vending machines that reward consumers when they dispose of plastic.

Does recycling work in Hong Kong?

No. Recycling does not work anywhere in the world. I have seen it personally. I have visited every possible recycling plant. Recycling never works because it was never designed to work. It was a marketing campaign started by plastic manufacturers to shift the blame from them to the consumers. Plastic is the most durable material. Every single plastic ever made is still in existence. How can we recycle it infinitely? You can recycle the products a couple of times if you have the infrastructure. But, the plastic industry never set up any infrastructure to recycle the plastic. They relied on governments to do that. 

You can observe the recycling bins on the streets when the garbage collectors come. They just take everything from the sorted bins and put them together and take them to the landfills. So recycling has not worked here. 

What’s your number one argument to convince people about the plastic problem?

Show them ‘A Plastic Ocean.’

Different cultures have different ideas about reducing waste and reducing use. How do you change a culture?

Culture plays a really important role in this. In the film, we go to an island called Tuvalu Island which is 800 miles north of Fiji, in the Pacific. In 1978, a supermarket was opened and single-use plastic became normal here. Today, at the northern part of the island, there is a 10 feet high heap of plastic waste. They cannot bury the plastic under the dirt, because there is no dirt as it is a coral island. They cannot dig into the island. So, culture plays a big role, while education can be used to help them adjust to the new paradigm.