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Sir David Attenborough: plastic and our oceans

Photo credits: Zafer Kizilkaya, Rakhmet Dirgantara, Alam Ramirez

Sir David Attenborough OM FRS 

Vice-president, Fauna & Flora International

Broadcaster, conservationist and vice-president at Fauna & Flora International – Sir David speaks to us about ocean conservation and the great plastics challenge.

What do the oceans mean to you?

“I am sure I am not alone in having a great many fond memories of days spent by the sea. And the more I have come to learn about our blue planet, the more I have come to appreciate the oceans not only for their beauty, but as an absolutely vital resource that is critical for our very survival.

“I think, because the oceans are so vast and because they are so mysterious, there is a sense that somehow they are untouchable, and that what we do on land cannot really alter them in any meaningful way. Not true, sadly.

“Blue Planet II helped to put plastic pollution on the global agenda. How do you feel about that?

“Well, naturally I’m pleased! Not everybody has had the chance, as I have, to visit these remote and astonishing places, and so I do think that our job as filmmakers is not only to inspire people with the wonders of the natural world, but also to help them understand the threats our planet is facing.

“Why this topic has particularly captured the public imagination now as opposed to at any other time I can’t say, but it has certainly helped to build momentum for us to take action.”

How serious do you think this issue really is?

“It could hardly be more serious.

“I suppose, for me, the thing that is so galling about plastic pollution in particular is that it is so utterly unnecessary. The plastic in our oceans ought never to have got there in the first place – much of it perhaps ought not to have even been manufactured at all. And yet it is there, in unbelievable quantities, causing untold harm to marine wildlife.

“And, of course, once it’s in the sea, it doesn’t really break down properly – it remains there for decades or even centuries. So unless we get to grips with this quickly, we will soon find our oceans completely dominated by plastic. It’s a prospect that hardly bears thinking about.”

Do you think we are going in the right direction?

“There is no doubt that human beings are having a profound impact on the marine environment. From pollution to climate change to overfishing, we are gradually eroding away at the health of our oceans. 

“How we tackle these threats is a difficult but important question. I’m afraid I don’t know the answer, but I do take heart in the fact that there are a lot of people out there working on ways that we can deal with plastic waste. It won’t be easy by any means, but as long as we keep building on the momentum we have gained then I am hopeful we can make progress.”

What would you encourage readers to do in their own lives, to tackle the problem of plastic pollution?

“The obvious answer is that we all need to think – and I mean really think – about how we use plastic. I regularly receive letters from people about their love of wildlife and conservation; and yet even then, even though the writers are ardent nature enthusiasts, they will often put their letter in a plastic folder – to make it look more important I imagine.

“So, as strange as it may sound, I would encourage people to treat plastic with respect, because if it escapes into the environment it will remain there for a very long time. If you don’t need it, don’t use it. And if you do use it, be mindful of where you put it.”

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