Cloud Talk: A Virtual Roundtable With A Plastic Ocean's Craig Leeson
We are obsessed with plastic. More than 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally—half of which is designed to be used just once.
What's more, 90 percent of all plastic produced isn't recycled, meaning at least 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year. At a minimum, plastic can take over 400 years to degrade—and even in its reduced state the plastic is likely to have degraded into toxic microplastic particles, which end up in our food. Our throwaway culture is threatening not only our natural world, but our food systems and health.
The global dependency on single-use plastics has become so ingrained into every part of our everyday lives that attempting to untangle from the endless plastics is undeniably hard. "There's no easy solution to plastic pollution," says filmmaker Craig Leeson during this week's Cloud Talk virtual event.
Leeson is the man behind the award-winning 2016 documentary, A Plastic Ocean. The film captures the full extent of our plastic plight as he travelled to 20 locations around the world with a team of researchers and scientists over a four-year period.
In this week's Cloud Talk, which took the form of a virtual roundtable discussion, 10 Gen.T honourees from the sustainability industry spoke with Leeson and asked questions about his experiences and learnings. From the importance of empathetic storytelling to the role financial institutions play in the climate change solution, here are Leeson's answers to the honourees' questions.
Climate Change Is Not A Slow Process
Co-founder, Bye Bye Plastic Bags
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that governments can adapt to situations like this very quickly. However, it’s not the case when it comes to climate change or plastic pollution. Why is this so?
CL: Generally, governments are not proactive, they are reactive. They wait until they receive pressure, and this may be from consumers, lobby groups, corporates, and so on.
Human health, as I've found out, is one of the toughest and most expensive issues for a government to tackle. When I was advising governments around the world following the release of A Plastic Ocean, I had difficulty getting their attention until I started talking about the dangers that the chemicals found in plastic posed to our next generation, and how they are causing cancers, diabetes and other health issues.
In my opinion, we also don't see governments acting quickly on the climate crisis because it isn’t a tangible thing. It's not like a virus; we can't see the coronavirus, but we can see the effects of it almost immediately. People get sick, they need to be hospitalised.
Climate change can alter our environment very quickly as well, but there’s still the perspective that it is a very slow process, and therefore not affecting us immediately.
Governments also tend to be run by older men, who are looking 20 to 30 years into the future because that's as far as they can see their [own] future. They're not considering the future of the next generation. This is something I address in my next film, The Last Glaciers.
We also see governments making five, 10, 15-year plans because they are thinking about businesses. Businesses need time to transition when there’s a change in government regulation and legislation; they need time to spend capital on new equipment, and time for design, research and development. Nonetheless, we need to see more urgency here.
We need to start considering the future of the next generation as what we do today is the legacy that we will leave for them
The Financial Industry Can Play A Big Part In The Climate Solution
Climate change advisor, Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Malaysia)
Given your role as a global sustainability partner of BNP Paribas, how important is it for financial institutions to push for divestment from fossil fuels?
CL: The financial sector has a big part to play in the climate change solution. As you know, coal produces 29 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and 44 percent of the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere. So if we solved the coal issue, we'll take a very big step towards keeping the climate under the 2 degree celsius that scientists say we need to do to preserve the life support systems that keep us alive on the planet. That's being recognised by some financial institutions like BNP Paribas.
In 2017, the bank announced that it will stop funding in new coal projects. It has also started to divest from projects that derive more than 10 percent of their revenue from the mining of thermal coal. BNP Paribas' aim is to have a portfolio that is within the guidelines of the Paris Climate Agreement by 2025.
In fact, financial institutions should move towards this direction not only because it’s the right thing to do for the environment, but investment-wise, it's also the correct call to make. What we understand now is that the fossil fuel industry is struggling to make a profit without government subsidies. What this means for investors are stranded assets, which are certainly not what financial institutions should be encouraging its investors to buy into.
Use Empathy To Build Awareness
Founder and director, Legacy Lab International
Do you have a particular style of storytelling to promote a sense of empathy in your audience, and potentially turn this empathy into action for change?
CL: Yes, I do. It's very important to first engage your audience. You have to get them to empathise with the people that you're talking about in the film, but also the issue. That can be very difficult with issues like climate change, where the science is so dense that it's hard to get people to understand it or even to translate the science into a way that is easily digestible.
I do it by taking people on the journey with me. I start from a position where I create awareness by going on the journey within myself. I find out more information about the issue and try and do it in a way that is understandable to me and those who are along with me on the journey, whether it be an eight-year-old or 80-year-old.
The device I used in a plastic ocean, for example, was to get people involved in the issue before they even realised that they were watching a film about an issue. The first eight minutes of the film is about whales, marine organisms and the beauty of the ocean. We don't see plastic, we don't hear about plastic. I wanted to get people to watch a film that they probably wouldn't have gone to see if they thought it was just about plastic, which isn't a very sexy issue, to be honest.
I wanted people to buy into the issue by first understanding what a magnificent planet we live on and how we share it with these amazing species. I wanted to trigger a sense of understanding as to why these are things we need to protect.
See also: Can Art Really Change Minds About Climate Change? Ivan Liu Says Yes
Tackling ocean pollution in the ocean is like having a broken tap in your kitchen and trying to fix the problem by mopping the floor. You can keep mopping the floor as long as you like, but until you turn that tap off, you're not going to solve the problem
— Craig Leeson
If You Don't Know, You Can't Care
Co-founder, Refill Station
What to you, is the most critical environmental issue to address, and do we still have time to solve it?
CL: It isn't an environmental issue, but apathy, I think, is the greatest problem that we face and this notion that someone else will fix this problem. So creating awareness is very important, and I think films like A Plastic Ocean might help in this regard.
With knowing comes caring, and with caring comes change. If you don't know, you can't care. So it's vitally important that we create this caring and this empathy that we were talking about earlier. That can start with awareness through films, it can start with education. We can expose people to these problems through our education system and have them discuss possible ways to solve the issue.
The Rise Of Other Health Issues Due To Plastic Pollution
How can we use ocean plastic in our fight against viruses such as Covid-19?
CL: Well, there are a couple of issues here. First of all, cleaning up the ocean is a very difficult task. Seventy percent of marine debris sinks to the bottom of the ocean, so what we see on the surface is literally the tip of the iceberg. The main problem is actually what lies on the ocean floor.
There was a study done by the University of Manchester recently that found up to 1.9 million pieces of plastic within one square meter of sediment on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy. The problem with this problem is that we don't have the technology yet to collect that plastic.
How does this relate to the coronavirus pandemic? I think it relates in terms of our mindset and the fact that as we pollute the environment, we cause imbalances within the ecosystem. And there's no doubt in my mind that Covid-19 erupted because of an imbalance in our ecosystem.
When I ask virologists and scientists around the world what they think is the world’s biggest problem confronting humans as a species, most of them don't say climate change or single-use plastics. They think it’s these viruses and bacteria. And as we create climate change, we see permafrost start to defrost and the viruses that were once trapped in them being released. They are being released from frozen animals that died thousands and thousands of years ago that remain exposed to these viruses. One example is anthrax, a rare and deadly disease, which has started to re-emerge in Siberia.
See also: R.A.W. Prize Winner Sissi Chao's Vision For Global Sustainability
Investing In Clean Energy
Mohamad Bijaksana Junerosano
Co-founder, Greeneration Indonesia
What can developing countries like Indonesia do about their plastic problem when we also have an economy that’s struggling?
CL: Developing countries such as Indonesia can actually jump over the mistakes that the rest of the industrialised world went through in becoming industrialised. Rather than invest in current technology or buying older technology from developed countries, you can leapfrog that and develop renewable energy infrastructure instead. This will make energy cheaper and more accessible to you. A shift in mindset is needed and this, once again, requires education. We also need to develop and fund entrepreneurs in this field.
With clever design, we can solve our plastic problem
— Craig Leeson
The Sum Of All Parts
Rashvin Pal Singh
Co-founder, Biji-biji Initiative
In which area do you think we have the best chance of winning the battle against plastic waste—the political and regulatory landscape, consumer behaviour or technological sphere?
CL: The answer to that question is all of the above. We need all of those combined because not one of them will work on its own. With manufacturers, for example, cradle-to-cradle responsibility needs to be introduced into production, particularly of packaging. If you make it, then you must be responsible for its lifecycle.
The notion that consumers are responsible for recycling is a con that started in the 1960s to allow manufacturers to continue manufacturing plastic. So there were clever marketing campaigns done which said that if you throw your waste on the ground, you will be spoiling the environment. It's [the consumer’s] fault. If you recycle, you're solving that problem.
However, recycling has never worked. The circular economy is a great idea, but it's not a solution. It's a transition period. Design is critical in this fight, as we've designed our way in and out of most of our problems throughout history. So plastic producers need to be bold and design better products.
Governments and consumers also need to be involved. Consumers are critical because we're the ones spending the money. We can change the way a retailer sells a product or what manufacturers produce simply by choosing to do something different on a mass scale.
See also: From The Dump To The Boardroom: How Rashvin Pal Singh Made Upcycling Cool
Tackle The Problem At Its Source
Tan Szue Hann
Chairman of sustainability, Singapore Institute of Architects
How far do you think we are from achieving the goal of emptying the oceans of plastics, and what's standing in our way?
CL: We have had several initiatives that have attempted to clean the ocean and from the very outset, we knew it wasn’t going to work. The ocean is a very violent place, so to take a floating structure out into such an environment and have it withstand the force of nature is, at this stage, impossible.
The issue with projects like this is that it's tackling the problem from the wrong end. Tackling ocean pollution in the ocean is like having a broken tap in your kitchen and trying to fix the problem by mopping the floor. You can keep mopping the floor as long as you like, but until you turn that tap off, you're not going to solve the problem.
The other problem is, of course, trying to separate microplastics from marine organisms. If you’re using the technology we currently have, there's a big likelihood you’re killing marine organisms such as phytoplankton. I believe we will get to where we want to be, but we aren’t there yet.
Make The Supermarkets Listen
Founder, Grassroots Initiative Consultancy
What have you been cooking up for yourself while stuck in Glasgow during this lockdown period?
Craig Leeson (CL): I don't think I've ever cooked as much I have since we’ve entered this lockdown. And that’s a great thing because I've always enjoyed cooking. But when I went to two well-known supermarkets here the other day, I was horrified. Everything was wrapped in plastic. However, I realised that consumers have no choice but to go to these places because there are very few other places open.
Normally, I would do my trash-the-checkout project, where I take my items to the check-out counter, unwrap all the plastic packaging and leave them with the supermarket. However, I didn’t feel that it was very sympathetic to the other problems that people here are facing. The queue to enter the supermarket is half-an-hour long, so to hold up the check-out counter to make that point would be rather selfish of me at the moment.
In Hong Kong, where I’m actually based, the employees at my local supermarket know me by name. So when I do that, the manager will take care of the plastic I leave behind. And I think this is a solution because when you hold up the check-out process, then you're holding up the profitability of supermarkets. It also tends to affect the people behind you in the queue—some people get angry because they’re being held up, others actually ask for more information [about why I do this].
Supermarkets, I think, are becoming more used to the fact that people are protesting against the use of plastic bags, and that's why many of them now charging for them and encouraging people to bring their own [bag].
Be A Conscious Consumer
Executive director, Save Philippine Seas
It has been predicted that there will be a rise in disposables due to health and safety concerns brought about by Covid-19. How do we find the balance between being cautious and not offsetting our gains as a movement to reduce unnecessary single-use plastics?
CL: I think what we need to do as consumers is be vigilant. There are plastic manufacturers and oil companies that will take advantage of the current situation, as they see an opportunity to profit from it. They are banking on us using more plastic packaging. So as consumers, we need to keep the pressure on our governments to prevent this.
Once again, we can go back to design and innovation to solve one of these problems. In that case, as entrepreneurs, innovators, design people and leaders of non-government organisations, we need to stay a step ahead of the corporations that have a financial interest in producing plastic products.
Our webinar series Cloud Talk has both Chinese- and English-language editions. To learn more about our upcoming webinars visit our Events page.
Quotes were edited for clarity and brevity.