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Oceans: The Mystery of the Missing Plastic    cover image

Oceans: The Mystery of the Missing Plastic 2016

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Green Planet Films, PO Box 247, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0247; 415-377-5471
Produced by Via Decouvertes
Directed by Vincent Perazio
DVD, color, 52 min.

General Adult
Pollution, Marine Science, Microplastics, Hazardous Wastes

Date Entered: 12/18/2017

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

This environmental science documentary attempts to unravel a disturbing mystery – and one upon which the fate of the earth’s oceans depend. What happens to the millions of tons of plastic that go into the world’s oceans every year? Much of it, of course, washes up on beaches or gets trapped in the now infamous and enormous gyres of trash in the world’s oceans. But 99 percent simply disappears, at least to the naked eye, breaking down into microscopic yet toxic particles that then begin to bio-accumulate in the world’s ecosystems – with devastating yet not fully understood consequences for all living species. This documentary does an admirable job examining the lifecycle of ocean trash, as it disintegrates and then bio-accumulates in plants and animals.

The field of environmental toxicology – a booming new field because of the human proclivity for soiling its own nest with industrial detritus – is in the very first stages of trying to unravel the mystery of the missing plastic. Scientists who attempt to measure the oceans can find only a fraction of one percent to the plastic that gets dumped into the oceans – about 8 million metric tons in 2010 alone. Much of it, scientists thought, ended up in five gyres in the world’s oceans: two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean. But scientists have found that these gyres, these continents of plastic, actually are not growing. That suggests that the gyres serve as collecting sites for the larger pieces of plastic, which then begin to disintegrate – or be driven by ocean currents deep into the oceans canyons and toward the floor of the ocean. These disintegrating pieces of plastic are known as microplastics, and it remains unclear just how much they bioaccumulate and enter the food chain, perhaps becoming even tinier nano-plastics. The big question, of course, is the health impact of all this plastic flotsam and jetsam on human and other consumers of the sea’s bounty. One scientist discovered that one third of the oysters and one quarter of the fish for sale at a fishmonger contained pieces of plastic. Some scientists have been intrigued by something quite unexpected – the ability of certain bacteria to digest the plastic and break it down. But this process would still only eliminate the problem of plastic garbage for a small fraction of the plastic that has infested the marine ecosystem and indeed become an integral part of marine biology.

The film interviews a wide range of scientists in the field of environmental toxicology in the United States, Canada, and the European Union. In addition to revealing the state of the science of marine toxicology and the problem of the plastisphere, it also provides a window into the scientific process itself, which unravels for the viewer like a good mystery. This is a solid and interesting documentary suitable for students and teachers interested in environmental science and studies.