How it All Started
The White Feather Foundation (TWFF): Why were you inspired to start Plastic Oceans UK?
Jo Ruxton (JR): I was working for the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong, a place where there was no protection for the sea. When I began, I gave a talk to two hundred local biology teachers, it featured slides of corals in Hong Kong. The teachers were amazed—they didn’t realize they had corals there—yet Hong Kong has more species of coral than the whole of The Caribbean. I then showed them some aerial footage of the pink dolphins that live just to the west of the harbour and they said “We don’t have dolphins in Hong Kong.” I said, “You have two resident species, as well as visiting dolphins and whales.” Plus, these dolphins are bright pink—I just couldn’t believe they didn’t know they were there! So it was a case of really starting at the beginning and trying to get legislation through the government there to protect these threatened areas. What that gave me was the experience that if you educate people, you’ll find out they really do care. In this case, they just didn’t know. Four years later we had legislation passed for four marine protected areas; I think there are six now. I left shortly thereafter.
TWFF: Was that when you started with the BBC?
JR: Yes, in the Natural History Unit. It was like a life dream doing a series that Sir David Attenborough was narrating and having the ability to go to these incredible places as a diver. The kind of access we had through the BBC was something you couldn’t pay for—it was phenomenal. But I just didn’t feel like we were telling the right story. We were always showing the best possible images. I thought that if we carried on doing this, with all the threats there are to the ocean, yet depicting it as if it’s clean and full of fish, then how will people ever care about protecting it? We will continue to treat the ocean as if it’s a place for all of our trash and extract everything from it until fish stocks completely collapse. So I kept trying to get messages about conservation in and it was always being edited out. I didn’t agree with that—there’s a classic Sylvia Earle quote that says “You might not care even if you know, but you can’t care if you don’t know.” And that was the thing, nobody knew.
Be the Change
TWFF: So that was your impetus to leave that role?
JR: It was around that time at the BBC where they were offered a voluntary redundancy program for those who wanted to leave. I had two separate meetings with Personnel to see where they thought my future was going there. Both of them said, “Well, you”ll never get any higher than Producer. Not because anyone is unhappy with your work, they’re quite happy—but it’s because you’re an older woman.”
TWFF: I’m seething just hearing that. Couldn’t you take legal action?
JR: Well, it was 13 years ago and I just thought, “I’ve got the experience and the passion, so maybe I should just leave.” I took a years’ redundancy pay and did just that. Then the world plummeted into global recession and here I am trying to raise money for my own film without the safety of the BBC!
TWFF: But you kept going …
JR: I kept at it because I felt very strongly about it. I had taken a leap of faith and just kept believing it could happen, but I never expected it to take eight years!
TWFF: So how did creating a film about plastic pollution evolve into forming an organization?
JR: I wanted to make an environmental film about the ocean, my first thought was to make a film about ocean acidification. I changed my mind as that subject can be overwhelming, it’s linked to climate change, and although we are all responsible it is not an easy subject to tackle. For my first environmental film, it needed to be something that everyone could feel that they could be part of the solution.
I formed the charity at the beginning of production in 2009 because I thought people would be more willing to donate to a movement like that and feel a part of it, instead of just funding a film. I also wanted there to be a legacy so the conversation would continue long after the film was released. The plastics issue to me was something that was so tangible—that we could change our behaviour and help solve it, the same way we did with CFCs in aerosol cans that were depleting the ozone layer. That took four years of successful campaigning to bring about change. Well, plastic is an amazing material. It was designed to last forever and defy nature by never decomposing … and what do we do? We make single-use items out of it. How crazy is that?!
TWFF: Right. When you say it that way …
JR: It’s madness and it’s a mindset that we’ve got that plastic is disposable. People think it’s being recycled or repurposed, but only a small percent actually does get recycled. Where does the rest go? Into landfills and into the environment. So when you realize that, there’s so many things you can do to change your behaviours.
TWFF: So you kept at it and made the film, A Plastic Ocean?
JR: Yes, the film took eight years to make and that’s because funding it was so hard. By the time it came out there was a real appetite to learn more about this and it happened to do well. I formed the charity because I thought people would be more willing to donate to a movement like that and feel a part of it, instead of just funding a film. I also wanted there to be a legacy so the conversation would continue long after the film was released.
A Natural Partnership
TWFF: How did you meet Julian Lennon and become involved with The White Feather Foundation?
JR: Julian had retweeted something we put on Twitter a few years ago and a girl who was working with me saw it and contacted him. He put us in touch with the Foundation and then when we were in London at the same time, I was able to show him a short version of the film we’d prepared for UNESCO. He then, very generously, became a Patron and donated funding to go toward the film and our education work.
The Chemical Component to Plastic Pollution
TWFF: The issue with plastic pollution in the ocean isn’t just about litter, though. Isn’t there much more to it?
JR: Yes, I thought the problem was simply that plastic was an eyesore in the environment and that once in the ocean it was entangling marine life, so many were ingesting it and dying with their digestive systems blocked. I heard that there was a ‘continent-sized floating island of plastic’ in the centre of the north Pacific Ocean and joined a scientific expedition that was heading there to investigate. We spent a month out there and discovered the truth behind this ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. There is no floating island, but there are microplastics that have come from larger plastic items that become brittle in the seawater and break up into ever-decreasing particles as they are caught up in giant circular currents that transport them to the ocean centres. Here they become part of the marine food chain as animals mistake them for plankton.
Even more importantly, I learned there is a two-way chemical transfer with plastic. The scientists on board told me how chemicals leach out of plastic, but also how plastic absorbs chemicals when it enters the ocean. So plastics attract chemicals that are in the ocean after decades of industrial and agricultural effluents have been released and basically become little toxic pills. You might think, if you eat a fish that’s ingested plastic, you’re not eating the guts so you’re okay, but the chemicals are also released from the plastic particles and are stored in the fatty tissues of the fish, which we do eat. For over a billion people on the planet, fish is the main source of protein, and those same chemicals have been linked to all sorts of disease. Cancer, autoimmune disease, diabetes, infertility, endocrine disruption, etc. When we learned how much of a threat it is to our food supply and humans in general, it became a much more important film. Not only people who care about marine life would be interested, but anyone who cares about their health and the health of their children.
The Evolution to Ocean Generation
TWFF: So that brings us to today … a re-branded organization and an expanded focus?
JR: Yes, until February of this year, all we focused on was the plastic problem and when we began our work back in 2009 no one was talking about the issue. We couldn’t even find other NGOs who wanted to collaborate—there were a few doing beach cleans and that was all. Now all the ocean-focused green groups are addressing plastics, new legislation has been passed, children are learning about it in schools and that is the kind of change we hoped to create. Our mission was to stop plastic reaching the ocean within a generation, now it has become stopping human threats to the ocean within a generation.
There is a new film in the pipeline too, we are just starting the fundraising process, and it won’t be about plastic. It is another ocean film, but it will be more uplifting and positive because I think we all need some hope at the moment. Even more so because of the pandemic. So we’re coming back with some scientific good news about our connection with the ocean and the steps we need to take to ensure its protection. The health of our ocean is vital for our own survival and critically that of the generations to follow …
TWFF: How are you shaping the narrative for supporters?
JR: At Ocean Generation we’re looking at ‘Ocean Intelligence’ in a big way, because it’s the last place to be considered for protection and it’s the last topic in school curricula. If you think back to learn about how humans breathe, what were you taught?
TWFF: That trees provide oxygen …
JR: Yes, and they do. Forests are important, but more than half of our oxygen comes from the ocean. That is our big life support system. Why don’t we know that? And with the deforestation happening, the ocean is even more important. What do we do? We throw our waste in there. Why are we doing that to the one thing that keeps us alive?
TWFF: Because people don’t know.
JR: Exactly. We have this deep connection with the ocean, but as we have all become disconnected with nature in general, our disconnection with the ocean is on another level and we have to bring it back. And that is where our work at Ocean Generation begins.