Filmmaker and plastic campaigner, Craig Leeson is the Director of A Plastic Ocean, the award-winning documentary that Sir David Attenborough called ‘one of the most important documentaries of our time’. Here he shares his ideas on cleaning to climate change.
How did directing A Plastic Ocean change you?
It changed my life completely. I had no idea plastic wasn’t actually disposable because I’d been brought up to believe you could throw it away. I never considered what happened to plastic or the effects it had on the environment and nature. What we discovered while making the movie horrified me.
What are the issues with plastic and microfibres?
Every year, eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans, which are small plastic fibres, about the thickness of our hair, that drift through the oceans, affecting the sensitive ecosystem and endangering sea creatures. Over time, microfibres absorb other chemicals in the seas and are then eaten by fish and then move up the aquatic food chain, eventually reaching our seafood and damaging everything that comes into their path. Microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer, honey, bottled water and table salt and a recent study even found microfibre plastics in human stools. And this is likely to worsen. Projections estimate between 1.8 and 5 million tons of microplastics annually end up in the environment now and that by 2050, this number is expected to increase to more than 22 million tons, meaning more plastics than fish would then be in the ocean, by weight.
What role does fashion play in microfibre release?
Fashion is a huge culprit of microfibre release and, shockingly, clothes and textiles are the main source of primary microplastics in the oceans. All synthetic fibres – examples include polyester, nylon, elastin, PVC - generate microfibres, with one study finding up to 700,000 microfibres are released on every typical washing cycle. When you consider that around 63% of fashion’s fibres are synthetic, so originate from oil, and then think about how much we over-wash our clothes and you can start to imagine just how much of a huge problem we are in.
Should we ban all synthetic fibres from fashion?
There is a push to reduce using synthetic fibres, which I welcome, yet synthetic fibres still have a role to play in the industry, from athleisure, sportswear to outdoor clothing. Polyester is a very durable material, which is easily recyclable, and it’s also cheaper than cotton, so we’re likely to see synthetics stay in fashion. Likewise, we’re also seeing more recycled polyester materials being used in fashion, including recovering and recycling plastic bottles and fishing nets and turning these into recycled polyester textiles, for example. There is also polyester waste materials that are sitting dormant, or worse on their way to landfills, upcycling allows us to keep these materials in use. So banning synthetics is not currently the answer. Instead, we need urgent behavioural change and awareness about how to mitigate this
How can we reduce microfibre release through washing?
This is really where our own behaviour comes into play. We can reduce microfibre release during home washing by changing how we care for synthetic fibres.
How else do you have a more sustainable wardrobe?
I choose my clothes very carefully and then, basically, I wear them to death! I buy well-made items that last and are timeless in terms of style, particularly when it comes to jackets, shoes and pants. Some of my favourite pieces are over ten years old and the character of the places they’ve travelled to is etched into their fabric from wear. They remind me of the adventures we’ve shared. Increasingly as I’ve become more aware of the supply chain, I now want to buy from ethical and fair trade menswear brands.
What are your views on climate change?
I’m really living on the edge of my seat with fear and determination to raise awareness about climate change, which ultimately is the biggest challenge of our time. Fashion contributes around 10% of the climate impact, which is set to increase to 60% by 2030 if we carry on as-is, and this truly frightens me. I’m currently making another film, called The Last Glaciers, which aims to bring the same level of awareness to Climate Change than Plastics Oceans is still achieving.