A Critical Response to ‘a Plastic Ocean’

We need to challenge ourselves to commit to actions that target large-scale policy, legal or infrastructural change.

The Plastic Oceans Foundation is an international NGO alliance that hopes to bring about global change in plastic consumption within one generation, and the documentary film A Plastic Ocean is a key plank in its strategies for producing the necessary awareness that will, they hope, bring about change. The film has been well received, and for good reason: the facts and figures on plastic pollution presented in the film educate us on the effects that human plastic consumption has on human health, the environment, and marine animals, and the film is both beautiful and emotionally stirring. The core assumption behind this film is, in fact, that stimulating emotions – making us care – will make us act.

This assumption has been troubled, politically, ethically and empirically, by much environmental scholarship, so as a Humanities scholar I find myself in the familiar position of wanting simultaneously to celebrate the power and beauty of the film and the strength of its call to action, while also sounding a note of caution. I say this is a familiar position, for we in the Humanities seem to specialise in the art of ‘yes, but…’ We critically prise problems apart and then turn them around to view them from different angles, and it can be a delicate art to point to complexities without undermining causes with which we are deeply in accord.

My response to this film, then, centres on such questions, and focuses on four themes: challenge; complexity; emotions; and action.

Turning the plastic challenge into action against plastic

A Plastic Ocean is an emotionally challenging film to watch. It also explicitly thematises challenge, in order not to let us be defeated by these emotions. The film invites us to connect one of the world’s most complex problems, plastic, to challenge ourselves and others. It wants us to move away from the defeating meanings of challenge towards a life-affirming conception by calling us to action. Two of its key figures – the free diver turned activist Tanya Streeter and the director Craig Leeson – describe how the ocean has been for them a source of enrichment, joy and life-affirming challenge.

The complex politics of the Plastisphere

We all need to respond to this challenge, but we also need to think critically about the underlying complexities apparent in the film. One complexity lies in the uncomfortable gendered politics it portrays. In applying a feminist lens, one could be sceptical about how the film, rather than focusing on the necessity to take on the plastics industry directly, instead emphasises that the work of women is to protect their children and the future. On the other hand, one can also rejoice in its depiction of physically strong women and numerous female scientists (my personal favourite being the wondrous, crossbow-wielding Professor Maria Cristina Fossi).

Additionally, the film highlights the disparity of lived experiences with plastic pollution between developed and developing nations, which was at times uncomfortable to watch.  The disparity is exemplified in the scene where Tanya Streeter, the film’s female protagonist, aims to protect the health of her baby by systematic and serious attempts to avoid plastic. This follows a segment where people from Philippines and Tuvalu are interviewed on garbage tips where they are forced to live. Whilst the film tries actively to give voice to the people of the Philippines or Tuvalu, its experts, with only one exception, are Western world scientists, and not those on the ground, who navigate the effects of plastic pollution in their daily lives.

In noting such complexities, I am not trying to indulge in any moral accounting – trying to weigh up the importance of the health of some human lives over others. Rather, I am pointing to the socially and geopolitically differentiated nature of people’s ability to respond to these impacts. In my own life I am in the very privileged position of being able to take them seriously and, like Streeter, make efforts to be an anti-straw, anti-cling wrap, anti-Styrofoam, freeze-it-in-glass-not-plastic kind of person. (I have found Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie’s book Slow Death by Rubber Duck very instructive in this regard).

Another complexity comes from the film’s focus on solutions. While this is obviously desperately needed, we also need to keep an eye open for problems about the types of technofixes shown in the film. You can’t solve the plastics crisis by adding to climate change, yet a focus of the film was on scientific developments such as turning plastic into diesel, which clearly cannot be understood as an unalloyed environmental boon. Likewise its emphasis on recycling doesn’t address any of the substantial critiques of recycling as an energy-intensive, expensive, post-consumption practice that does nothing whatsoever to stem the more fundamental problem of the ever increasing tide of goods.

Despite the complexities that underlie A Plastic Ocean, we mustn’t let complexity become paralysing. An intellectual understanding of complexity must not stop us from taking action where we can. Indeed, it should, in fact, teach us to target our actions in the most meaningful and powerful ways possible.

The importance of hope.

Some moments in the film are confronting with many images hard to erase from one’s mind. This brings up interesting questions about the potential of emotion to be wielded as a powerful tool for action versus its potentially paralysing effects. One critical emotion evoked by the film is hope. I have been interested in the political importance of hope for a long time now. Hope is usually understood as not ‘calculative’,[1]  having little to do with a rational assessment of how well things may or may not turn out in the future. A Plastic Ocean highlights that there has never been a more important time for hoping that the future can be a better place. However, hope is hard work. It’s a discipline, something you have to work at. And it has a kind of perversity at its heart. As David Brower so beautifully puts it ‘We can no longer afford the luxury of pessimism.’[2]

It’s time to challenge ourselves to commit to large-scale action

One of the film’s core propositions is that “It starts with the individual and it starts with us.” While there has been much scholarly critique of the political, ethical and pragmatic value of assuming that environmental problems are best addressed to, and resolved by, individual action, it is also clear that we cannot let complexity or emotion prevent us from acting. At the film screening of ‘A Plastic Ocean’, as a bridging exercise into the Q&A session, I asked the attendees to make a list of five things they could do – starting tomorrow – to make an intervention in the plastisphere. The same principle can be applied now. We can start small by changing five things, which can be as simple as:

  • buying a keep cup
  • committing to reusable shopping bags;
  • buying a metal water bottle;
  • stop using drinking straws or coffee pods;
  • or not buying toothpaste containing microbeads.

Simple actions such as these can immediately reduce plastic pollution, but there is also a need to point to more than individual actions, and we also need to challenge ourselves to commit to actions that target large-scale policy, legal or infrastructural change.

Large scale actions could include lobbying your nearest university to ban plastic bottles like many US university campuses have, or (to start somewhere easier) to ban plastic drinking straws in its cafes. You might commit to ringing your local MP to put pressure on them to support a serious plastic bag ban – or not bother waiting for government and get your suburb, locality or city to ban them as has been happening around the world. You could also start a petition calling on a major supermarket not to sell fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic or on Styrofoam trays, or support the group 1 Million Women’s anti-plastic pledges.

By watching A Plastic Ocean and engaging in conversations about how we can individually and collectively address the plastisphere, we are already participating in a powerful, dispersed, determined collective action. But watching is not enough.


[1] P. White. Civic Virtues and Public Schooling: Educating Citizens for a Democratic Society. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996, p. 9.

[2] In the foreword to Shutkin, W.A. 2000. The Land That Could Be: Environmentalism and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ruth Barcan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies atThe University of Sydney. Ruth is the author of Academic Life and Labour in the New University: Hope and Other Choices (Ashgate, Dec. 2013); Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Bodies, Therapies, Senses (Berg, 2011), Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy (Berg 2004), and the co-editor of Imagining Australian Space: Cultural Studies and Spatial Inquiry (UWA Press 1999) and Planet Diana: Cultural Studies and Global Mourning (Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, UWS Nepean, 1997). She is the author of numerous articles in areas such as the body in culture, consumer culture, and teaching.

Image: Via Shutterstock, Image ID: 446699794,