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Plastic, plastic, so much plastic - can a viral video change how we view ocean waste?


15 March 2018, by Matthew Oldfield

On the 3rd of March, 2018, British diver Rich Horner filmed himself swimming through a sea of plastic waste at one of Bali’s iconic dive sites - Manta Point on Nusa Penida. The video has since gone ‘viral’, with over 1 million views and 30,000 shares of the original facebook post, plus between 30 - 40 million views of the video across different media.

Rich Horner originally shared the video with the following message:

The ocean currents brought us in a lovely gift of a slick of jellyfish, plankton, leaves, branches, fronds, sticks, etc.... Oh, and some plastic. Some plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic cups, plastic sheets, plastic buckets, plastic sachets, plastic straws, plastic baskets, plastic bags, more plastic bags, plastic, plastic, so much plastic!
Surprise, surprise, there weren't many Mantas there at the cleaning station today... They mostly decided not to bother.

Followed by an update the next day:

UPDATE: As expected, the next day, what the currents bringeth, the currents taketh away!
The divers who went to Manta Point today report they saw no plastic/trash at all. Great for the mantas coming in for a clean at the station, but, sadly the plastic is continuing on its journey, off into the Indian Ocean, to slowly break up into smaller and smaller pieces, into microplastics. But not going away...

ZuBlu recently interviewed Rich Horner about what happened that day and the subsequent reaction to the extraordinary video.

Can you tell me a little about yourself? What do you do and what have you been doing in Bali?

I used to a be a mechanical design engineer back in the UK but when I reached 30, I did the fairly common thing and quit my job to go backpacking. I travelled around countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US amongst others but after learning in Australia, I slowly became addicted to diving. For the last 10 years I have been coming out to Bali for holidays as one of my very good friends from home has a dive business here and about 5 years ago I more or less settled on Nusa Lembongan and have been here every since - living and diving.

Can you tell me what occurred on the day the video was filmed?

I was going out to try and film the mantas, but when we pulled into the bay at Manta Point everyone could see this big line of plastic and organic matter. Whilst we sometimes see lines of debris at other sites, we don’t normally see them at Manta Point and the size of it was an incredible shock. A lot, lot bigger than normal, bigger than anyone had seen before. The fishermen and boat captains I have spoken to since say they don’t think they have seen a such a huge amount of floating debris before. 
I have a good friend who is working in conjunction with one of the universities in Bali doing research into micro plastic, so I knew I had to record the debris and document what was there. I jumped in and spent probably 20 or so minutes of the dive swimming under and amongst the plastic, filming different shots and close ups, as well as the 3-4 manta rays that we saw cruising around on the bottom.

What is the diving like normally? How did that dive compare to other dives you have made in the area?

We very rarely get any waste inside the bay at Manta point and from all the dives I have done there, I have only ever seen manta rays actually feeding there a few times, when the currents and winds pushes plankton into the bay. Normally it is pretty clear and normally it is full of mantas visiting the cleaning stations - seeing 20, 30, 30 even 40 manta rays there has not been uncommon over the years. Surprisingly they don’t seem to mind the divers that come along to watch, which is incredible. It is possibly one of the best manta sites in the world - to get such easy and personal interactions with the mantas is pretty unique.

What happened after you shared the video? What sort of response have you had from the video?

Initially the response was pretty slow after I put the video up on facebook to share with friends and dive buddies. A few people shared the video but mainly in the academic world. So the first enquires and questions about the footage were from NGOs and other organisations involved in marine issues. I then uploaded the video to youtube to give these people and groups easy access to the video and it was then that the viewing figures took off. I looked the next day and the viewing numbers had already gone through 500,000 - which was mind blowing! - and then all the news media requests started coming in. Which, to be honest, was a little daunting. I began to realise the scale of it all, and that I had a responsibility to ensure that what was shown in the video was accurately portrayed and not sensationalised. I sat down and wrote huge amounts of bullet-pointed notes so that anyone who saw the original post would have a chance to better understand the context of the video, as well as what the site is like normally. Thankfully a lot of the news media actually read the notes and most have used the footage in a responsible and accurate manner, especially the piece in The Guardian. The Indonesian media has generally been quite clear and accurate in their reporting of the issue as well.

How have the local people of Lembongan and Bali, and the authorities and government reacted?

All my friends on the island, many of which own diving or snorkeling businesses, were obviously shocked by the video - simply because something of that scale had never been seen before. Everyone around here knows that plastic is an issue and they, more than anyone, want the problem fixed. With so much global coverage of the issues around waste and plastics at the moment - something the whole world is trying to address - then perhaps part of the reason why the video went viral beyond the local dive scene was because it coincided with all this similar coverage from around the world. It was a case of the right video at the right time.
Very quickly I got messages from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which encompasses solid waste management. I have met with both these ministries since - both amazingly interesting meetings. They were very interested in the technical details of where and when this occurred, as well as what was seen - something that was of particular interest to the people I met who are involved in tracking waste in Indonesia. They knew immediately that this was really big and actually sent the footage and all the information to the Indonesian delegate at the International Marine Debris Conference in San Diego that was going on at the same time. The video was shown to over 700 people there, all directly involved in plastic waste management around the world.
I was impressed that the ministry was so willing to share this video, so willing to acknowledge that their own country has such a big problem with plastic waste, but also that they are very obviously taking serious steps to tackle the the issue of waste. I quickly learned that the Ministry of Environment and Forestry clearly have a lot of programmes focused on tackling plastic waste going on and they even asked for my opinion on what can be done, as for them it was very useful to get an outsider’s perspective. The only advice I felt I was qualified to give is that I grew up in the UK where, as children, we were continuously exposed to an educational campaign from the Keep Britain Tidy charity.  We all grew up feeling guilty about dropping litter - a huge success! From an early age, children were educated about waste and how to dispose of it in a responsible manner. Indonesia hasn’t had this type of campaign and yet it is such an easy and cheap thing to implement. So moving forward, I know that educational campaigns targeted at children, teaching them about waste and how to deal with it responsibly is right up there as a top priority for the government.

Where does the plastic come from? Is there any evidence that points to a particular source?

In the past we have looked at the labels of any plastic waste and can often recognise where it is from - although on the day I shot the video, I didn’t get a chance to check. Everything I have seen in the past is from Indonesia - with labels written in Bahasa - and I think all the big pieces of plastic we see does originate from within this country. Which islands? No idea. I feel that some may come from the rivers in Bali, but there are also the famous rivers in Java such as the Citarum and others, as well as major coastal cities and towns, all of which are major sources of plastic. Perhaps the micro plastics that we can’t see may be carried in from other locations outside Indonesia. But the big, fresh pieces are almost certainly originate from within the country.

What impacts does plastic waste have on the environment here? 

As divers, we want to see the manta rays here - they are one of the main selling points. And jumping in on a dive site with plastic waste everywhere, well, it looks terrible of course. But luckily it seems that the manta rays are able to avoid big pieces of plastic - they don’t seem to ingest these bigger pieces very often. They have always needed to dodge pieces of marine debris or jellyfish and so can actively move around the plastic, or even spit out bags that they have managed to ingest - behaviour that many people have recorded on video.
But once the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, then it becomes a bigger problem for the manta rays. They are definitely ingesting these micro plastics. The plastic becomes covered in algae and so seems like a food source - yummy on the outside, not so nice inside. So for the filter feeders, micro plastics are definitely a huge problem. For turtles, the bigger pieces of plastic are more of an issue. They may confuse pieces of plastic for the jellyfish on which they feed, or try to eat the algae that grows over the plastic - either way, the turtle ends up ingesting plastic and we have all seen recent images of animals that have died with their stomachs full of plastic waste. And then there are the fish that we eat ourselves. They are ingesting plastics. Take whitebait or anchovies for instance - if you eat those, you may also be eating a mouthful of plastic from the waste found in the digestive system of these fish. A frightening thought.

What can be done to prevent this from happening in the future? Are the local authorities or Indonesian government doing anything to tackle the problem of plastic waste in Bali and other parts of the country?

There have been a lot of huge cleanups in recent months, including the recent ‘One Island One Voice’ event - a huge effort that involved many, many people, 85% of which were locals. So the behaviour and awareness of Indonesians is changing, and many people now recognise that they have a responsibility to not drop plastic in the first place or clean it up. But trying to clean the ocean is like trying to fix a leaking pipe with a mop. Stopping people from dropping plastics in the first place, stopping people dumping things into the rivers and seas directly - tackling the leak at its source - is what is needed. Perhaps with an educational campaign like Keep Britain Tidy. In parallel, the country needs better infrastructure for waste management. It does exist but it is not big enough, doesn’t cover every area, doesn’t work very well. I hope the authorities will increase their waste management capabilities, with more collections, more processing, more management. All of the things that we are familiar with back in Europe for instance - proper collections, wheelie bins, recycling - Indonesia still has not got there yet. One of the ways Indonesia is still developing is how it manages its waste and after speaking to the two ministries, I know they are fully aware of the size of the task that lies in front of them.

I read one of your comments on the original facebook post about how small a percentage such things as plastic straws and bags make up of the total weight of plastic waste. And with China closing its doors to other countries wanting to recycle and reprocess their waste elsewhere, what can we do about the problem on such a grand scale?

One of the side effects of China turning down other countries’ plastic waste is that these countries will, as they should, become self-sufficient at recycling and processing their own waste. And within indonesia, as the world’s second largest producer of plastic waste found in the oceans, the scale of the waste means that local processing is very much viable.
Looking into the future there is going to be some very interesting technology coming online. One of the ones I have been following for a few years is Landfill Mining and Reclamation - they now have sorting machinery that can separate so many different items. They can separate organics, inerts, plastics - the technology gets better every day and in the future landfill sites such as those in Lembongan and Bali might be seen as a gold mine, filled with so many raw materials that we have thrown away in the past. As the waste contained in these landfills become valuable, then the collection and processing of this waste could become profitable, or at least offset some of the cost of collecting it in the first place.
Straws and plastic bags only make a tiny percentage of the total weight of plastics in the oceans but they are visible and recognisable - so this is perhaps why they have become so associated with the problem of ocean waste, particularly by divers visiting destination in the developing world. They are the ‘low hanging fruit’ that we can address - and are massively raising awareness of the problem as a whole. And as a byproduct of tackling straws and plastic bags, then other items will follow. There are many behaviours that we can change - like using hard plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner versus soft pouches that can be recycled. I think a lot of change will come about from pushing out ideas that have already been shown to be effective, on the back of awareness and campaigns focussed on straws and plastic bags.
Over-packaging is also a big one. So much of what we buy is over-packaged. This can be addressed, probably by public pressure more than anything else. For example, rules need to be put in place about using plastics responsibly. An important point to remember is that plastics are amazing materials! Their use in packaging is absolutely vital - especially for food packaging whereby food is kept fresh on the shelf for longer and we reduce food wastage hugely. Maintaining that is vital, so we can’t ban plastics, but we need to use them responsible and process them responsible after use. Treat it as a hazardous and valuable waste and once we have the correct behaviour, both before and after use, then the problem of waste will be massively reduced.

The video has now been viewed over 30 million times and been shared by a huge variety of media outlets, including major national broadcasters across the globe. Why do you think the video has attracted so much attention? Is it simply a case of sensationalism and the media looking for a story along the lines of ‘Paradise island swamped in rubbish.’ Or is there a ‘sea change’ occurring with regards to awareness of plastic waste, in the oceans or elsewhere?

All over the world the awareness of plastic waste and the problems associated with it has been growing for several years, but perhaps has now reached some sort of critical mass. Every country is facing this problem and the people want something done about it and are stepping up and trying to raise awareness and solve the problem themselves. Campaigns to ban straws or plastic bags have sprung up everywhere. Bali and Indonesia have had their own fair share of stories recently - for instance Bali has had its own ‘garbage emergency’ with all the waste washing up on the beaches in the west. This problem has been growing year-on-year, but the last two wet seasons have been particularly bad - perhaps because of the increased rains associated with the recent La Niña. Remember, El Niño means drier conditions in indonesia, La Niña means more rain. So perhaps this increased rain has pushed more rubbish out of the rivers and into the sea. We have had two years of a lot more rain so perhaps this has kicked out a lot more waste locally.
As part of the recently-broadcast, and quite amazing Blue Planet II from the BBC, Sir David Attenborough sat us down in episode 7 and said all he has seen in recent years is more and more plastic in the oceans. Everywhere you look, are plastics. That added a whole new level to the awareness of this waste, especially in places like the UK and the US and other countries where it is currently being shown. 
I think my video went viral partly because of being released at the right time. But also because I shot some of it as a selfie with a gopro on the end of a long pole - and it shows me, a human being, swimming through the plastic, with waste passing between me and the camera, all around me, above me. There was a connection - a human swimming in a sea of plastic - and I believe the footage went viral partly because of this connection. It was never my intention for the video to spread so far and wide, and for so much attention to be turned on Bali, but I hope that it will help - for any issue, you need to connect it to people and that is often one of the biggest problems when trying to raise awareness. Perhaps my video will help to make that connection for many people.

In the long run, do you think sharing this video will have a positive or negative impact? Both here in Bali and elsewhere?

Locally there is a chance of some negative effect on tourism. Sadly Bali has had its recent ‘garbage emergency’ and a lot of sensationalist coverage about that problem from some media outlets. Then the recent eruption of Mt Agung has certainly had an impact on tourism and again, some media outlets that we all know of in the UK and Australia definitely handled this in a sensationalist manner. Tourism is the number one source of income on the island so there is this fear that since they are already suffering, the video may not help. However, having spoken to a few other businesses around the island, visitor numbers do seem close to normal - given it is low season of course - and whilst dive centres are getting questions about the plastic, they are also still getting bookings. The video seems to have had little noticeable impact on numbers, especially in comparison with what happened after the eruption of Mt Agung
On a global scale? I believe a video that people can connect to will help push this issue into the limelight even more. And if actions are taken globally, it can only mean they are taken locally as well, here in indonesia for instance. The whole world is going to have to work together to solve this problem and help each other. Every human being has to help and encourage their governments to do something. I think it will help in the long run.

Indonesia is the world's second-largest producer of rubbish found in the oceans, coming just behind China, but the government has stated that it aims to reduce marine plastic waste by 70% by 2025. Do you think this is a realistic aim? What do you think would be necessary to achieve this?

Indonesia may have a slightly harder task, simply because it is a nation of 17,000 islands and has so many more people living next to the sea. Somewhere like China for instance, with its huge landmass but lower percentage of people living on the coast, may be better placed to control its waste and prevent it from entering the oceans. Some may go into the rivers, but the rest is on land and more easily managed. In this respect, Indonesia has an unfair amount of work to do. But when they start seeing successes in places like Bali - the more ‘visible’ places - then it will be easier for the government to roll out programmes nationally. Everyone is in the same boat and hopefully Indonesia will receive international support and technologies. And when these new technologies are introduced a lot will be possible. And having ambitious targets is always a good thing - aim high and if you fall short, you have still achieved a great deal. Aim high. I feel positive and I know there will be changes and improvements.

What can a diver or traveller do to help tackle this problem? Given the scale of the problem, what can an individual do to help?

Anyone in the world can make changes. When you go shopping use you buying power to buy products that have no packaging, or are not over-packaged. Or pressure your supermarket into reducing the amount of packaging they use. If you are in a supermarket and there is an unnecessary amount of over-packaging, then spend your time at the checkout to remove the excess packaging and leave it there. If enough of us do that, the supermarkets will get the message, plus you are actually leaving the waste packaging in a place that is well equipped to deal with it. Supermarkets have to deal with a lot of waste and packaging so by leaving it with them, you are doing the responsible thing!
Tourists can focus on the 'low hanging fruit' - refusing straws to drive change in the restaurants and bars that surround the tourism industry, using aluminium water bottles and carrying their own shopping bags. Interestingly, the people of Bali and Indonesia are actually very good at recycling plastic water bottles, simply because they have value and can be sold to recycling plants for money. On Lembongan, you don’t see old water bottles in the trash or streets. They are all collected, packed into huge bags and shipped out on big cargo boats back to Bali, before being sent onwards to an established recycling plant. This has been going for years and if you can expand this to include other materials - which is possible with newer technologies - then there will be a big change. Once that waste has some sort of value, then it becomes a resource and people will pick it up.

Lastly, do you believe sustainable travel is actually possible? Or is a myth?

In some places, yes. It is a tricky one and it does depend on where you go and what you do. As a general rule, diving is one of the better tourism industries I think. The dive guides and instructors show people what is under the reflections, show them the reefs and show them the fish, as well as the damage and the plastic that might drift by. So tourists become connected to these issues. Without that connection, no is going to care about them. Before the aqualung was invented, we had no idea what was under there, it was just the sea of plenty. We were taking, taking, taking and then suddenly we ran out of cod, and we started to see a lot of destruction. So showing people, educating people, revealing both the good and the bad in the underwater world, is an amazing benefit - a net benefit for humanity.
Much of tourism can be costly to the environment and so doing it responsibly is vital. Every country has to control tourism so it must be done in the best way possible. As humans we are in a position to take time out - we have time, money, resources, the ability to have fun, enjoy ourselves, travel and see new places. Part of being human is enjoying ourselves and we need to set tourism up so we can have our free time, have our fun and travel to new places, whilst taking care of the environment and local communities at the same time.

Video © Rich Horner 2018

Matthew Oldfield
Co-founder of ZuBlu