What we can learn from the BBC’s Drowning in Plastic documentary

This isn't a piece about plastics, or how businesses can and should be reducing their plastics footprint. But, the BBC's jaw-dropping and necessarily bleak investigation into the havoc that plastics are causing the environment does offer some potential learnings for a sustainability professional.

What we can learn from the BBC’s Drowning in Plastic documentary

For those unaware, the BBC’s Drowning in Plastic documentary aired earlier this week, as wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin traversed pristine and isolated coastal environments to highlight how a plastic bottle or a soup sachet can be utterly destructive for fragile ecosystems.

Drowning in Plastic is everything that Blue Planet II could have been and why its rightly been dubbed a follow-up to the series that sparked an irreversible wake-up call on a key sustainability issue. It is unapologetic in its portrayal of the harm that plastics can cause and has the potential to act as a catalyst for real public understanding of the severity of the plastics issue.

However, the documentary was watched by 2.9 million people, a figure dwarfed by the 14 million people that tuned into the opening Blue Planet 2 show and absorbed Sir David Attenborough’s warning in the final episode that action “now depends on us”.

It is here where the show offers its first parallel to the role of a sustainability professional.

Know your advocates

I’m not going to pretend that I’m well versed in the career of Drowning in Plastic’s narrator-cum-protagonist Liz Bonnin. I do know that she is a well-respected presenter with a Masters in Wild Animal Biology, meaning she is more than qualified to present and educate on the subject matter of the BBC’s documentary.

However, the key to Blue Planet 2’s success was the involvement of national treasure Sir David Attenborough and I’d argue that Drowning in Plastic would reach more viewers if it had that high-level advocacy.

Liz Bonnin has been able to engage her 54,000 Twitter followers on the issue at hand. In comparison, a David Attenborough parody account had 172,000 followers. Bonnin’s expertise on the matter – plus the fact she sunk nine months into the project – has created a valuable agenda that arguably couldn’t be replicated by anyone else, but it could do with some high-level support. This need is also evident in the world of corporate sustainability.

Companies like Unilever and Mars have benefitted from having their chief executives emerge as advocates for the sustainability and climate agenda, if Drowning in Plastics has taught me anything, its that buy-in from the top can help the message spread like wildfire.

Stories speak louder than numbers

Drowning in Plastic deliberately stirs up emotive scenes. From the shearwater chicks throwing up plastic pieces to the crimson neck of a grey seal pup, the documentary deserves credit for its ‘show-not-tell’ approach.

For sustainability professionals, the traditional method of communication – the CSR report – is undergoing a bit of a makeover. Investor and stakeholder calls from more disclosure mean that more data is being presented as part of sustainability communications. While welcome, some argue that integrated approaches to reporting can cause CSR to lose a sense of humanity, and therefore resonance.

Drowning in Plastic is a prime example of how stories, imagery and emotions can leave lasting impressions on an audience. As CSR reporting continues its transformation to a key business document, it is important that sustainability professionals harness the power of stories and emotions to underline the purpose, actions and results of their business.

Open the conversation

The sustainability sphere is in danger of becoming an echo-chamber; a place where the same people raise the same issues to the same audience. Drowning in Plastic could’ve travelled down this path. Bonnin spends much of the documentary speaking to a variety of marine researchers, but where the programme really shines is when it branches out in terms of who it speaks to.

Whether it’s the lobster fishermen aiming to commercialise ropeless buoys, the 25-year-old Indonesian promoting a dissolvable, edible, seaweed-based solution to plastic packaging or Boyan Slat, the Dutch innovator who came up with the idea for The Ocean Cleanup when he was 16 years old, the documentary really shines when it focuses on everyday people who are driven by different motives.

Reaching out to different voices, of different ages and from different backgrounds, can introduce new thought processes and raise new questions about a business model or action. As the documentary proves, expanding the conversation is a great vehicle for innovation – whether that be through new products or new ideas.

In an era where ethically conscious consumers are starting to become the majority, new ways of thinking are required. Sustainability professionals and business, in general, should be having new conversations with new people, in order to breed new ideas.

Be like Seagrass

Towards the end of the documentary, Bonnin found that underwater Seagrass was stopping the spread of plastics amongst certain coastal areas by trapping the material. The Seagrass was also found to reduced harmful bacteria that was acting as a disease for marine ecosystems by up to 50%.

The multi-faceted benefits of Seagrass will interest different people for different reasons – either its plastic-trapping ability or its healing potential. For a sustainability professional pitching a project to the business, success could likely depend on how people view the benefits.

An onsite renewables project, for example, may capture the interest of the finance department if it delivers favourable returns on investment. However, the board and marketing departments might be more interested in the reputational upside the project could deliver. Not only should projects create multiple business benefits, but sustainability professionals also need to be able to articulate them to an array of audiences.

Find the value in your offer

Drowning in Plastic isn’t built entirely on despair; it offers a glimpse at a new economy that drastically reduces the amount of plastic in circulation. One such economy is highlighted by the documentary in Indonesia. Bonnin visits Jakarta’s “waste bank”, where workers are offering money for the collection of plastic items, which are then recycled and placed back into products and the economy.

Redefining waste as a valuable resource isn’t a new concept, but it is a tool that can be used by businesses to incentivise staff to change behaviours and deliver desirable results.

It doesn’t have to be as tangible as money in exchange for plastics – a business can offer a variety of rewards and incentives for staff members to take steps to reduce energy consumption, for example.

Those living in Jakarta are willing to collect plastic, and therefore offer a solution – albeit small – to the city’s plastic waste issue. Willingness is built on the notion that it benefits the individual, rather than the whole, and businesses can use things like gamification and league tables to mobilise staff action on a sustainability agenda.

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