Impacts of Ocean Awareness in Popular Culture – ‘Garbage Island: an Ocean Full of Plastic’ (2008)

The release of BBC’s Blue Planet documentary in 2017 renewed interests in ocean pollution within the public sphere. However, this isn’t only documentary that’s been made surrounding problems in the marine environment, in fact its easy to forget that the Blue Planet series was actually a sequel to a documentary released in 2001. Questioning the effectiveness of increasing public awareness of ocean issues through popular culture. Blue planet one and other documentaries produced in the early 2000’s are seemingly forgotten, is this because the evolution in technology has enabled documentaries to illustrate problems in more detail than ever before or is it because raising awareness in this way only creates short-term impacts? 

‘Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic’ was an online documentary produced in 2008 by the website Vice; aiming to raise awareness of the impacts of plastic the programme followed three staff members on a three-week trip to the ‘Garbage Island’ in the North Pacific Gyre.  Submerging ‘normal’ people into what was at the time a relatively unknown field was supposed to increase public knowledge with the aim of initiating real change.  

North Pacific Garbage Island

Following people’s personal journey into discovering the impacts of plastic in the ocean was an effective element, it demonstrated that you didn’t need to be a scientist to understand the consequences of plastic consumption. Highlighting the devastating impacts in a relatable and understandable way, contrasting many of the official strategies used to outline anthropogenic impacts on marine environments.   

As the documentary progressed became less about the plastic pollution and more about the presenters, the storyline quickly became repetitive, veering from the intended content. The programme had a unique opportunity to highlight the issues of plastic pollution at a time when public knowledge of the subject was relatively limited, however the lack of sustained focus on the topic meant that the documentary didn’t live up to its intentions.  

There are concerns that documentaries don’t go far enough in highlighting the range of issues that impact the sea.  Key arguments suggest that the emphasis on ocean plastic is distracting from other larger issues such as overfishing.  Solutions offered in many of these programmes, such as switching to biodegradable plastics and reusable water bottles provide the public with a false sense of security, offering ‘quick fixes’ hiding the issues true complexities.  

There are also debates surrounding the entertainment value of these programmes. Whilst its important to acknowledge that documentaries are inherently ‘entertaining’, its equally important to recognise the severity of the issues being presented. Contrastingly there are concerns that programmes produced alienate viewers discouraging them from engaging with the issue because the problems presented are done so in such a catastrophic light that nothing can be done.  

Documentaries can be a useful and effective way of highlighting complex subjects to a wide range of audiences. Whilst ‘Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic’ may not have sparked the action against plastic consumption it intended, it undeniably contributed to wider efforts surrounding raising awareness of ocean pollution and its implications.  

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