Why Jo Ruxton made the A Plastic Ocean documentary
‘There is something about the ocean that gives you this incredible sense of wellbeing’ says Jo. ‘I have an autoimmune disease – rheumatoid arthritis. Cold-water swimming is supposed to be good for the immune system, and I have felt and been so much better since I started. Whether that’s in my head or physically, it doesn’t matter, because I do feel better.’
That love of the ocean overflows into Jo’s work – she has devoted her life and career to preserving and healing it, and to teaching others to do the same. Back in 2009, she set up the charity Ocean Generation (formerly Plastic Oceans) while making what was to become A Plastic Ocean, released in 2016.
‘When I started to work on the film and started the charity, nobody was talking about plastic,’ Jo recalls. ‘I had worked on all these underwater films, including the original Blue Planet series. We were always portraying the ocean as if it was full of life and full of fish, the coasts were clean and all that – and of course, that is not the case.’
Jo decided people needed to know what was going on. ‘If we don’t tell the full story, people are going to continue to treat the ocean badly,’ she says. ‘I chose plastic because it is easy to understand. We are making single-use items from a material that is designed not to break down.’
What is the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution?
Today more than 420 million tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide each year, and every year at least 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, according to environmental network IUCN. Plastic makes up 80 per cent of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, and marine creatures ingest or get tangled up in plastic debris, causing severe injuries and death. Around one million seabirds die from ingesting plastic each year, according to the Ocean Blue Project, and it is projected that by 2050, 99 per cent of seabird species will be ingesting plastic.
The crew of A Plastic Ocean witnessed the effects of ocean plastic pollution first-hand: dolphins feeding on discarded shopping bags, turtles with drinking straws lodged in their nostrils and seals trapped by plastic netting cutting into their skin. They also saw the way plastics break down into minuscule particles which mix in with microscopic plankton and find their way into the food chain, starting with sea creatures from shrimps to whales and inevitably ending up in human diets. The film put ocean plastics on the radar and won several awards from film festivals around the world. ‘It really piqued people’s interest and opened the door for other environmental films,’ Jo says.
The next series of Blue Planet featured plastics, and presenter Sir David Attenborough called A Plastic Ocean ‘one of the most important films of our times’.
How has A Plastic Ocean already made an impact on ocean conservation?
A Plastic Ocean called for ‘a wave of change’ – and the early ripples of that surge have been felt around the world since its release. Microbeads have been banned in cosmetic products in the UK, US and Canada, and the UK is among a number of countries to bring in plastic bag charges, which have cut plastic bag use by 97 per cent in its main supermarkets.
The UK has also restricted the use of straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and is set to ban single-use plastics including plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers in October 2023.
In Jo’s experience, the changes go further than legislation: she has seen shipping companies taking initiatives to cut their plastic pollution and says young people are better informed about the ocean and the threats to it. No longer the lone voice shouting about plastics, her charity changed its name from the Plastic Oceans Foundation to Ocean Generation and rebranded as an educational organisation spreading the word to children and young people about the vital importance of the ocean, and the threats it is facing.
Educating young people about the importance of our oceans
‘Our work is about bringing the ocean to the classroom. It’s about what people can do and what the ocean does for us,’ Jo says.
Ocean Generation has four key messages: first that the ocean supports all life on earth; second that it is a single ocean so what happens in one part of the world can impact every part of the sea. The third is to highlight the five main ways human actions threaten the ocean: climate change, pollution, coastal infrastructure, resource extraction and daily ocean use, such as shipping. And the fourth looks to the future: a crusade to save this crucial and fascinating resource, starting with supporting the UN’s 30X30 mission to protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.
The aim for young people aged 16–25 is empowerment. Ocean Generation provides resources to help them take action and get involved in conservation work. It also distils key events like COP27 and COP15 for those who don’t have time to listen to all the lectures.
What can you do to help protect the ocean?
‘It’s very much positive messaging, empowering young people to see what they can do,’ Jo says. ‘One of the things we say is that we would rather have millions of people doing something imperfectly to help the planet than a handful of people just doing everything. If every single person did something – even if it’s just turning the heating down one degree or making the air-conditioning one degree warmer, if everybody did that, what an incredible impact it would have.’
One simple suggestion is to swap butter in plastic tubs for butter wrapped in foil. ‘Don’t keep the butter in the fridge – and if it’s too hard, use a potato peeler instead of a knife,’ she says. ‘Why, just for the sake of having to work a bit harder to get butter on your toast, would you prefer to potentially harm the planet?’
She adds: ‘Do what you can, but don’t feel frustrated that you can’t do everything. We want everybody to feel part of it. When you understand, it is easier to know you are part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.’
READ MORE ABOUT JO RUXTON’S WORK WITH OCEAN GENERATION IN SWIM ISSUE 1.