It’s relatively small, as far as atolls go. The Midway Atoll, an unincorporated territory of the United States, is comprised of two main islands – Eastern island and Sand island – and is surrounded by 15 miles of coral. Its total land area is 2.4 square miles.
Located 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii and 2,000 miles from any continent, Midway is almost completely unremarkable, aside from the fact that it hosts the largest colony of Laysan albatross in the world and they’re all choking on plastic debris.
Scientists estimate that the birds carry five tons of plastic to the island every year. They obtain it from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also known as the Pacific garbage gyre or the Pacific trash vortex), a massive collection of marine debris locked into an immortal loop by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. The gyre is a hodge podge of cast-off consumer products: bottle caps and toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, fishing nets, toys, bags and nurdles (plastic that has been broken down by time and erosion into microplastic pellets).
Of the two million albatross living on the Midway islands, researchers have concluded that all of them contain some quantity of plastic in their bodies. Adult albatross see the bright plastic in the ocean and eat it, thinking it’s food, and will later regurgitate that plastic bolus into the throats of their chicks. A two-year study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that approximately 200,000 of the 500,000 albatross chicks born on the atoll die of dehydration or starvation, and those that die in this way have twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that die from other causes.
Once ingested, plastic can cause irritation or damage to an animal’s digestive system. If sharp enough, it can perforate the stomach or block a bird’s gizzard or esophagus. Oftentimes, fish, turtles, seals and birds that ingest plastic simply die from malnutrition or starvation because their stomachs are so stuffed with trash that they never feel hungry.
Discovering a ‘Plastic Paradise’
The plastic on Midway is not only carried in the stomachs of albatross. It’s also washed ashore by the gyre.
The mountains of trash building up on these remote islands first attracted the attention of award-winning sportscaster and TV journalist Angela Sun in 2006, but it would not be until 2009 that she would lead a team to document the environmental ruin that Midway has become.
Though an Advisor for the Ocean Defender organization and an ambassador for the Whaleman Foundation, Sun did not initially set out to make a documentary. Her primary field of expertise is in the sports world, which she admits is a far cry from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “There wasn’t much crowdfunding going on when I started,” she told Planet Experts in an interview. “It was kind of just a different ballgame.”
In 2012, Sun completed filming what would become the award-winning Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
By the time Sun arrived at Midway, the atoll had already been incorporated into the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a federally-protected region encompassing 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. Because of its conservation status, island caretakers are tasked with collecting the garbage that washes up onshore. According to Sun, this cleanup would occur after every four months or so, with the garbage later being piled in a dump on the main island.
Before she began documenting, Sun says the island looked very different.
“When they first got out there and found what was going on,” she said, “there was just mounds and mounds – I mean, I’ve heard up to like 20 feet high – of trash.”
The most alarming thing, Sun said, was how familiar all the trash looked. “In, supposedly, one of the most remote, pristine, untouched areas of the Earth, I’m seeing the same stuff you would see at home, in your trashcan – toys we used to play with.
“And the stuff that’s washed up there isn’t bottles you might have thrown away yesterday,” she added, “it’s stuff from 20 years ago plus. So, 35mm film capsules, or certain toys that are of certain decades, and those are really alarming to see.”
Making a Documentary for the Midwest
Midway is one of the remotest American territories, easily ignored and without any popular support. Eco-tours of the Midway atoll were sacrificed on the budgetary chopping block in 2013, and the atoll’s 10-person Fish and Wildlife staff was cut in half. Since that time, Congress has commissioned no new research on the island.
Midway would seem to be of little concern to the U.S. government or the U.S. at large. And yet Sun made the film, she says, “for the Midwest.” A native Californian, the ocean has always been in her backyard. What’s going into it is a major issue on the West Coast, yet remains far from other Americans’ minds.
At screenings of the film, says Sun, “I get a lot of people on the West Coast who get it because they see it – that’s their backyard. But for someone who lives in a landlocked area, how and why does their trash affect anything? And how would something so far away from them affect them, and why should they care?”
At its heart, Plastic Paradise is as much about our modern disposable culture as it is about the atoll.
“People just don’t even think,” said Sun. “We’re so conditioned to pick up a disposable cup at the coffee shop. And you always have a straw – that’s just something you do. Things like drycleaning bags or dog poop bags, there’s always plastic. People get one item and they stick it in a plastic bag and off they go. It’s used once, even though they could have just carried it out.”
In traveling with the film, Sun has found the experience both frustrating and gratifying. In some cases, she exposes audiences to a side of plastic they’ve never seen before. In others, her screenings take place in states that have bans against banning plastic bags.
“You can’t even write a bill to combat any industry interest,” said Sun. “In Florida and in Indiana and in Illinois. So if activists wanted to they couldn’t even write legislation to ban the plastic bag because the industry has already written it into law.”
And all those plastic bags end up somewhere. Sun described the eeriness of walking the beaches of Midway and finding shreds of plastic bags or brightly colored nurdles in the sand. These were the remains of dead birds.
“Instead of seeing bird feathers and bones and pieces that are organic, you’d see little pieces of plastic,” she said, “piles of plastic where there used to be bird remains. You’d see some feathers here and there, but it was much more common to see red bottle caps and white bottle caps and cigarette lighters all piled up – neatly piled in these little clumps on the atoll.”
Midwestern or Californian, Yankee or Southern, that’s an image that resonates with audiences nationwide.
“I just wanted to make it relatable and answer the question, why would somebody care? I didn’t set out to be a filmmaker. I work in sports, I host TV shows and I really enjoy myself… This is just a topic that doesn’t go away, it continues to grow with every sort of disaster – like a disappearing plane or tsunami debris rolls up on the shores – that brings it back to light. It’s evergreen, it’s never going away.
“So unless we have that consciousness on a mass scale, I feel like the job is never really done.”
There are several ways to see Plastic Paradise. You can check out the film’s official website for screenings, or purchase it directly as a DVD or digital download. The documentary is also available to view on iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo.
When you order directly from the website, $5 from the purchase goes to 5Gyres to help fund their research on ocean plastic. The rest of the purchase amount goes towards funding Angela Sun’s Plastic Paradise college campus tour, in which she screens the film and discusses the garbage gyre and its effect on the Midway atoll.
If you would like to host a screening of the film or learn more about reducing plastic use, check out the official Plastic Paradise Take Action page.