-Tom Fish

When something's described by Sir David Attenborough as "one of the most important films of our time,” you know it's worth a watch.

So students and staff filling into the Eastern Gateway auditorium were in for a treat on Thursday 2nd March as they sat down to a screening of A Plastic Ocean; an adventure / documentary exploring exactly how polluted the lifeblood of our planet is.

There is special significance in selecting Brunel to host the high-end doc; for among the team of top scientists assembled on camera is the university's very own Professor Susan Jobling. She was also one of the project’s science advisors and is actively pursuing the creation of the world’s first inter-disciplinary plastic oceans research hub here at Brunel as a legacy to the film. She was in attendance with other luminaries for a Q&A after the screening – more of which later.

The film brings the near-unimaginable environmental impact of man into sharp, often uncomfortable relief. It follows the journey of two explorers as they travel to some of the most remote parts of the world, documenting the environmental issues associated with plastic pollution, and its impact on animals, ecosystems and human health.

In one of the most shocking scenes, conservationists find more plastic than plankton in the center of the Pacific. Using cutting-edge science, the film proceeds to prove how plastics, after entering the oceans, break up into small particles that enter the food chain where they attract toxins like a magnet. These inevitably pass up the food chain until they are eventually consumed by humans.

And after the closing credits, the film's world-renowned producer, Jo Ruxton, led an enlightening and impassioned panel discussion. She replies to the first question on how to lobby businesses and governments to buy into sustainability.

“It's all about economics,” she said. “The people who are producing the plastics and the packaging will also opt for the cheapest option. At the moment it's cheaper to use virgin plastic than recycled. Reducing tax on recycled plastic is a simple way to proceed.”

Another member of the audience enquires whether plant-based plastics are the future.

“You need to use the edible parts of plants like corn starch, which is difficult when you have to feed everybody,” said Brunel Lecturer Dr. Lesley Henderson. “In Asia they are using rice husks which is better because that is normally thrown away. But people need to get out this disposable habit that we have. And that's the key to all of this – why are we thinking of disposable products in the first place? However it's produced we will still have to look at how to deal with it at the end of its life.“

Professor Susan Jobling takes one of the final questions, concerning the public health angle to plastics in our bloodstream.

“Research into exposure to chemicals in plastic has been conducted at Brunel over the last 20 years,” she said. “The issue I talked about - endocrine disruption - interruption of the body's hormonal systems - is associated with the 'body burdens' of chemicals. “However,” she continued. “The effects of micro-plastics in people is a very under-researched issue. Some recent studies show that the average European probably consumes 11,000 pieces of micro-plastic per year. But we don't know how that impacts on health and well-being, but you can hypothesis they would.”

Postgrad student, Ashley Rezvani, attended the screening and believed the film made a huge impact on the audience.

“I don’t think a lot of people are really aware of how much plastic they use,” Rezvani said. “And after seeing the movie I just started noticing how much plastic was every where, and now I just imagine it in the ocean.”

Since seeing the documentary, Rezvani immediately started making changes to reduce the amount of plastic she uses. She purchased shampoo that comes in soap bar form and now makes an effort to buy produce not wrapped in plastic when grocery shopping.

At the screening, two large jars full of plastic bric-a-brac – each perhaps weighing a kilo – have sat on the table in front of the Q&A panel all night. It is only at the end of the evening when they are revealed to contain the contents from the stomachs of a brace of albatross chicks.

Food for thought indeed.