Story transcripts

Seas of Shame

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reporter: Liam Bartlett

Producers: Nick Greenaway and Julia Timms

After this, we bet you think twice next time you're at the supermarket. Next time you start loading your trolley with plastic bags.

They might be convenient, but wait until you see the havoc they're causing.

We’re not exaggerating, the junk we throw away is literally choking the great oceans of the world.

Huge stretches of once-pristine sea are now just a plastic soup.

It's ugly, and it's deadly.

Every year, plastic pollution kills more than 100,000 marine creatures and there's no improvement in sight.

And don't assume for a minute that we humans are immune. Our discarded rubbish is coming back to haunt us.

Special Features:

Read Liam's blog and leave your thoughts here

Story Contacts:

For more information on recycling initiatives, visit SKM recycling

Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai`i:

Full transcript:

STORY, LIAM BARTLETT: Sea turtles have survived for 200 million years. Through the age of dinosaurs, the ice age, and the stone age. But it's the plastic age that may just wipe them off the planet. Tonnes and tonnes of plastic rubbish are choking the oceans of the world and turtles are among the first casualties.

KATHY TOWNSEND: You sometimes feel great anger at the human world. But yeah, just mostly disappointment and sadness that the animals are having to suffer this really terrible fate.

LIAM BARTLETT: Marine biologist Kathy Townsend is seeing the devastation first-hand. She's conducting ground-breaking research on the toll this plastic plague is having on sea turtles in Queensland.

KATHY TOWNSEND: They're chasing after jellyfish as well and jellyfish are obviously mid-water and a plastic bag floating mid-water looks an awful lot like a jellyfish.

LIAM BARTLETT: So you reckon a lot of these could be mistaking the floating plastic in the water for jellyfish?

KATHY TOWNSEND: Yeah, I think it's mistaken identity definitely.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's straight out of the turtle's stomach?

KATHY TOWNSEND: That's straight out of the turtle's stomach and look at the size of that piece. That is huge.

LIAM BARTLETT: And just look at the toxic garbage this young green turtle has consumed in its short life. Oh, that's huge!

KATHY TOWNSEND: That's a huge piece of plastic.

LIAM BARTLETT: For Kathy and her team it's not a pretty job... Oh, geez that stinks.

KATHY TOWNSEND: It does stink!

LIAM BARTLETT: ..but the mounting pile of plastic they're finding is much more offensive. Shopping bags, bin liners, fishing line, party balloons. This little female turtle didn't stand a chance. It's a 21st century phenomenon - Death by plastic!

KATHY TOWNSEND: We're looking at around 40% of those animals having died from the ingesting of marine rubbish, which is a staggering number and honestly if somebody else was telling me this, I wouldn't have believed it.

LIAM BARTLETT: So, of every five turtles you are performing autopsies on plastic is killing two of them?

KATHY TOWNSEND: Yes. Surprisingly, it is.

LIAM BARTLETT: Hundreds of thousands of animals die this way each year. Choked, strangled or trapped by our discarded plastic. But it gets worse. The toxins that plastics release are now entering the food chain. How bad do you think the problem is Charles?

CHARLES MOORE: It's so bad that half the fish that feed on the surface waters that we've looked at, have consumed plastic. Some, as many as 25 pieces in a little 5-inch-long fish.

LIAM BARTLETT: In their stomach?

CHARLES MOORE: Yep, in their stomach.

LIAM BARTLETT: I wonder what that's doing to the fish itself?

CHARLES MOORE: It's contaminating their tissues with man-made pollutants.

LIAM BARTLETT: Californian Charles Moore is a marine researcher and has dedicated his life to exposing the plastic disaster facing our oceans.

CHARLES MOORE: There's another plastic bag floating by right there

LIAM BARTLETT: Seen a couple just while we are standing here.

CHARLES MOORE: It is, for all practical purposes, like diamonds - forever. Our lifetime, our children's children... It's a matter of centuries before this stuff is made part of the natural cycle again.

LIAM BARTLETT: And for every day it swirls in the ocean, the death toll mounts. You need no greater proof than the plight of the Laysan Albatross. Every single one of these birds, native to Midway Island in Hawaii, has consumed plastic.

CHARLES MOORE: These magnificent Albatross go thousands of miles just to deliver a meal to their chicks. And you can go to Midway Island and see over a 100,000 carcasses of Laysan Albatross chicks with their stomachs brimming over with plastic, some as much as half a kilogram.

LIAM BARTLETT: So how does it end up in the ocean? Well, you and I use 77 kilos of plastic each and every year. That is 77 kilograms of this stuff for every man, woman and child in Australia. You probably think that most of it ends up like this - about to be recycled or buried in a landfill. Well, the truth is almost half of it does not. And the ocean is downhill from everywhere. At last count, there was almost 4 million tonnes of plastic swirling around the Pacific.

CHARLES MOORE: We've never had a trawl free from plastic anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.

LIAM BARTLETT: What? You've never put that in the water and not pulled some plastic out?

CHARLES MOORE: That's correct.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's staggering!

CHARLES MOORE: It is staggering, that's why we call the ocean a 'plastic soup'.

LIAM BARTLETT: And Charles Moore has seen the very worst of it. 10 years ago, aboard his research vessel, the 'Alguita' he sailed into the world's biggest swirling mass of plastic waste - covering an area twice the size of Britain. That's... the ocean's special landfill?

CHARLES MOORE: It's what I call a 'seafill' in the middle of the ocean, yep. And the tonnage is is enormous.

LIAM BARTLETT: This giant marine dumping ground stretches across the North Pacific. It is where four ocean currents converge delivering a constant stream of plastic rubbish. No wonder they call it 'The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.' And this is where a lot of that toxic tide ends up - Hawaii. This island paradise lies in the direct path of that massive plastic soup. It's exactly how you'd expect the Hawaiian coastline to look - wild, rugged, beautiful. But I've been watching the water for the last 10 minutes and let me show you what's really in it. This is how it collects against the rocks. It's disgusting, it's putrid, revolting. And we've only got ourselves to blame. I can't believe I'm walking on a beach.

SUZANNE FRAZER: No, it looks like a great big garbage dump.

LIAM BARTLETT: It is... it is a rubbish tip.


LIAM BARTLETT: Look at this stuff, there's everything here.

SUZANNE FRAZER: Disgusting. There's all kinds of things like toothbrushes and combs and ropes and nets.




SUZANNE FRAZER: hagfish cones...

LIAM BARTLETT: ..and bottles, Suzanne.

SUZANNE FRAZER: Even brushes. Look at this.

LIAM BARTLETT: Kamilo Beach is Hawaii's dirtiest. Suzanne Frazer is an Australian Environmental campaigner who is now totally dedicated to fighting this plastic tsunami. And this is all high-tide is it?

SUZANNE FRAZER: That's right, that's right. This is where the tide-line brought all this trash up to.

LIAM BARTLETT: Everybody's crap from all over the world.

SUZANNE FRAZER: Ah-ha, in Hawaii - paradise supposedly.

LIAM BARTLETT: And we still haven't hit nice clean sand. Is there such thing as clean sand on this beach?

SUZANNE FRAZER: Maybe way down over there, but no, I don't think so.

LIAM BARTLETT: In some parts of this beach you need a shovel to find the first grain of sand buried half a metre under plastic. The terrifying reality is plastic pollution is digging a much bigger hole for humanity.

SUZANNE FRAZER: We live on one planet, we have one ocean. Even though we call it different names it is all connected. So you know, we're going to be swimming in it, eating it, surfing in it, etc.. I mean, I don't, I don't want to be in water that's a garbage dump and I'm sure many other people don't either. But there is this mentality that somehow you put it in this vast ocean and it's going to disappear. But it doesn't!

LAIRD HAMILTON: At the end our existence and our... this beautiful sphere that we're spinning through space on will cease to be the planet that we know. It won't be the 'Blue Planet' any more.

LIAM BARTLETT: As the world pioneer of extreme surfing Laird Hamilton has spent much of his life in and on the water. In recent years he has witnessed a dramatic increase in plastic pollution around Hawaii.

LAIRD HAMILTON: I see plastic all the time. Stuff is floating in the water, a mile, two, three miles out - in the middle of nowhere there is stuff in the water.

LIAM BARTLETT: For Laird, a clean ocean is fundamental to our survival.

LAIRD HAMILTON: How can it not be? If our air was full of plastic and we... we'd suffocate. At the end we will just suffocate the sea is what we'll do.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's exactly what were doing to it, isn't it?


LIAM BARTLETT: Are you ready?

LAIRD HAMILTON: Yeah, come on, just hop on your knees and come out. Get outside, paddle a little bit you know.

LIAM BARTLETT: Laird introduced me to his simple philosophy - just get wet! He believes the more people who establish a connection with the ocean, the less likely we are to use it as our giant dumping ground.

LAIRD HAMILTON: You're not going to protect something that you don't appreciate and that you don't care about. So you have to make people care and nothing... no better way to make somebody care about it than to participate in it, with it. And then they get a feeling - "Hey, I care about it! What's going... ".. how can we help it?"

LIAM BARTLETT: If you're out there doing all that amongs the plastic and the rubbish it sort of takes the gloss off it.

LAIRD HAMILTON: The ocean full of plastic is an ugly place.

IAN KIERNAN: What you've got to realise - whatever you drop on a mountain or in a creek or on the beach or in the street or in the paddock is eventually most likely to end up in the ocean, the ultimate receiving waters.

LIAM BARTLETT: No Australian has seen more evidence of the shocking state of our oceans than famous solo yachtsman Ian Kiernan. He was so appalled, he started the now world-wide 'Clean-up' campaign. Beginning with Sydney Harbour.

IAN KIERNAN: Sydney Harbour is better than it's ever been in my life now, but it's still not perfect. But the oceans are getting worse, no doubt about that.

LIAM BARTLETT: So now Kiernan has come with his most ambitious idea yet.

IAN KIERNAN: Well, what we're hopeful of is to raise a huge amount of money in America, because it is a very generous country and then to go and commission fishing boats and teach them to go and fish for plastic. Then that plastic can be recycled or it may even be able to be turned into oil, there is a technology for that, and that way, we could clean it up. Then we would look, after it's cleaned up, we would then look at an embargo on fishing in the North Pacific for 10 years to give the fishery a chance to recover. That's my big plan.

LIAM BARTLETT: That's how badly we've managed to damage our oceans in just the last six decades. We've reached a crazy point where we must stop catching fish and start fishing for plastic. The fight back from here won't be easy, but it's got to start somewhere. So even though it looks like mission impossible you've just been doing an hour's clean-up that makes you feel better?

SUZANNE FRAZER: It makes me feel like, "If this is my last day on earth, at least I did what I could."

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