Plastic Paradise: Whole Terrain interviews documentary filmmaker Angela Sun

Originally posted on February 9, 2015

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

If you are concerned about the use of plastic, if you have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and want to learn more, or if you want a great film to show to interested friends or students, check out the award-winning documentary by Angela Sun, “Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” In this film, Ms. Sun, who describes herself as “not ‘crunchy’ or ‘granola,’” leads us on a journey of exploration about plastic. She is approachable and fun, and the documentary is filmed in a way that will appeal to teens and college students. (You can purchase the film directly from the filmmaker and part of the proceeds go to 5Gyres, for educational institutions through Bullfrog Films, or stream it online via Amazon.)

Angela Sun shows us the accumulation of plastic on and around Midway Atoll, the problem of albatross (whose nesting ground is on Midway) ingesting plastic pieces and feeding them to their chicks, and the massive amounts of plastic in the Pacific Ocean stretching for miles in the North Pacific Gyre. Discovered and explored first in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the North Pacific Gyre is one of five ocean gyres in the world, where ocean circulation creates a pocket like a massive eddy in the middle of the ocean. In each gyre, plastic and other trash accumulates when it ends up in the ocean. Tens of thousands of pounds of this plastic garbage ends up on the shores of Midway Atoll each year. She discusses what happens when nylon (a form of plastic) nets roll along a coral reef, and as plastic breaks down into pieces ingested or leeched into microorganisms and animals, making its way up the food chain.

Sun then takes the viewer along on her journey as she discovers details about plastic manufacture, recycling, and health risks, and she attempts to talk with representatives of the plastic industry. She learns the facts from notable scientists, and also spends time with famous personages, including musician Jack Johnson, Olympic snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, surfer Dave Rastovich, and the Bag Monster as Sun thinks about what we can do about our over-reliance on plastic.

Angela Sun agreed to share with us a bit of her story in making the film and the impact this film has had on her own life.

Whole Terrain: What inspired you to create a documentary on the topic of plastic in the ocean?

Sun: I think of myself as an accidental environmentalist and activist. I’ve always been inquisitive, wanting to learn more and tell a good story, but this issue was deeper and took longer to peel back all the layers of the onion because of its complexity. I love to surf, but disposable stuff was normal growing up. I love the ocean, so I want to protect my backyard. Plastic Paradise is an untold story because we don’t know a lot about the ocean. It’s out of sight, out of mind. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. My goal was to bring it to the surface (no pun intended). I didn’t set out to be the trash lady, but I care about the ocean and want to protect it as a way of life.

It was really hard, sometimes lonely, while making and sharing this documentary. I had a huge moment of fear where I wasn’t sure if people would care about the film or want to watch it, but response has been phenomenal. It makes me feel there is a need for this kind of storytelling that inspires action.

WT: What was one of the most surprising things you learned during the filming of this documentary

AS: I was surprised about some of the logistical difficulties, such as gaining access to the plastic industry and filling out all the paperwork to get to Midway. In the end, I learned that you go with the story. You set out to share a particular story, but you go where it leads you, that tedious long haul. I thought it was going to be a short-form story, but as I learned more, I wanted to do it right. It was important to me to keep the integrity of all sides of the issue intact.

I was also surprised about how many misconceptions there are about what and where the plastic island is, its size, stuff like that. We made sure to fact-check everything so it is accurate and understandable for the general public.

Angela Sun, filmmaker, Plastic Paradise

WT: What are some of your favorite stories from making this film?

AS: I admire the work of Professor Fred Vom Saal. He’s a BPA researcher with offers of corporate funding. It’s really hard to do unbiased research and to say “no” to corporate funding. I applaud him for keeping his research independent. Everybody we met had great views and a passion to share what’s going on with other people.

That’s the crux of this film: to bring all the experts and activists together to share what they know. Jack Johnson has been rewarded for his work to do zero waste concerts and environmental education, which is wonderful, but it is also important to highlight the on-site volunteers who do the actual work of setting up info tables, recycling stations, and education at his concerts.

WT: Has what you learned about plastic changed your lifestyle or habits? In what ways?

AS: Definitely, I’ve changed my own lifestyle. I’ve been called out as the “plastic police” or “trash girl,” even by my family, because I want to recycle everything, or not use it in the first place. I went to Sundance Film Festival recently, and some of my friends who came with me brought their own water bottles because they knew I was going to be there. It’s one small step, but it’s also a huge win! We noticed water bottle filter fountains at the airport where we could fill up our own bottles.

It’s not that I mean to force other people to act differently, it’s just that you have to walk the walk–like I said, I’m an accidental activist. It’s something you just do. Using less plastic shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into “environmental” or “greenie.”

It’s not even that hard to change your habits–it’s hard at first, but now, I feel weird holding a paper coffee cup with a plastic lid. I used to be that girl who liked to work out a lot and had a bunch of disposable water bottles in the back of my car so I could grab one and go. After doing the film, I get excited and amped up by audiences who feel as excited about it as I do. Every little bit helps.

WT: What are some ways you would suggest we change our national or international policies in light of what you discovered about plastic, or start curbing our own use of plastic?

AS: The best place to start is with with education and awareness: you can’t protect what you don’t know. Of course, one good way to do this is to watch the documentary! Everyone can get involved. We need to get everybody on board together for collaboration between industry, policy makers, and the general public to make real change. Some low-hanging fruit that we could work on first would be plastic bag bans and other disposable or single-use plastic items.

Even beyond policy, we first need to raise the social consciousness and awareness of the general public. Policy makes sure that what we want gets put into action, so we have to want it first.

You can personally start by making a pledge on the Plastic Paradise website not to use single-use plastic, and share your pledge on your social media accounts. Monitor your intake at first, just be aware of it: no take-out boxes, no plastic utensils, and inspire your friends to join by saying what you’re doing on social media. Take a mason jar as your party glass, or a coffee mug when you go to the coffee shop. Bring your own picnic plate and utensils to barbecues. Our website has more ideas about what to do, and what to use instead of plastic.

Another necessary policy change is to put pressure toward producer responsibility: having plastic producers in the industry be responsible for what they produce. Currently, they don’t have to pay to dispose of the stuff they create, placing the responsibility on the consumer. This is partially true: if we don’t buy it, they won’t make it.

The only way to reduce the problem of plastic in the ocean is to stop putting stuff in. Once it’s there, we can’t do anything about it. There is no “away,” a place to put it where it won’t get into the ocean.

Overall, the best thing we can do is to continue to tell good stories, and to collaborate in getting the word out.


You can follow Angela Sun and her film, Plastic Paradise, on Instagram or Twitter @sunnyangela or @plasticpdise, or like the film on Facebook. You can use the hashtag #plasticparadise to share your thoughts on the film or to share your Plastic Pledge photos. If you would like to vote for her film (and find a bunch of other great climate- and justice-oriented films), go to the Global Inheritance Bigger Picture Awards 2015 nomination page.

News Reporter
Cherice Bock edited Whole Terrain's volumes 22 and 23, "Trust" and "Breaking Bread." She is currently a general editor and works mainly on soliciting, editing, and creating web content.

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