Blazing a trail
Wildlife presenter and biochemist Liz Bonnin talks to Kathryn Manning about plastic pollution and what puts a “fire in her belly” to protect biodiversity
In speaking to Liz Bonnin, the presenter of Blue Planet Live and Drowning in Plastic, one is immediately struck by her passion. She is no different to her onscreen persona in her genuine desire to defend the environment and its animals.
I start by congratulating her on receiving an honorary doctorate from the Royal Veterinary College earlier in the week. “I felt like a kid at Christmas,” she laughs. “Especially because it’s a whole 10 years since I graduated from there, so it really took me back.” Bonnin originally did a masters in wildlife biology; so what inspired her to become a biochemist and biologist in the first place?
“I’ve always been interested in a natural world,” she says. “I grew up in the South of France, and was outdoors all the time. I was interested in how all living things worked. I wanted to understand how little birds’ tiny hearts beat in their bodies and how their eyes moved.”
At the age of nine, Bonnin moved to Ireland. “In school, I was just drawn to the sciences. That led me to study biochemistry, to understand how everything worked, down to the chemical equations, atoms and molecules that make up all processes in living systems.”
She “randomly fell into television” following her biochemistry degree and got to love making programmes. This led to an exciting time presenting on UK breakfast television and Top of The Pops. However, she missed science and decided to do her masters, later returning to TV programming with a renewed focus.
“You realise how the different paths you take end up leading you to where you’re supposed to be,” she says. “Ultimately, communicating my passion for science has become the dream job.”
Bonnin helped to lead the way in the plastic waste debate with her 2018 documentary Drowning in Plastic. What attracts her to one environmental cause over another?
“My job is extending my education on a broader scale,” she says. “For a whole year I focused on the plastic crisis, so I’ve got a real fire in my belly to continue communicating those issues until more is done. But I’m on another project now which has opened up my eyes to a whole new area, a documentary about the impact of meat production on the environment.”
Battling big business
She’s mentioned that the onus should not just be on the public when it comes to plastic waste. Does she ever feel under pressure when up against big industry?
“The response, particularly of the British and Scandinavian public, has been amazing, and of course it’s not just me leading the charge. David Attenborough led the way, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did a great series as well.
“The rest of the world is pretty much oblivious to the problem. In the US, nobody really gives two hoots about plastic, and the throwaway culture is alive and kicking. Developing countries don’t have the luxury of thinking about an alternative.”
On facing big corporations: “You’re basically speaking out about the juggernauts that are the fossil fuel industry and petrochemical industry. Sadly, for them it’s business as usual. Single-use bottle sales of water went up 7% last year. Production of plastic is set to increase. It’s at about 400m tonnes a year at the moment. It’s set
to increase to 800m tonnes by 2040.
“I am privy to the greenwashing that is blatantly going on. The buck stops at big industry, which is still hell-bent on growth and absolutely in denial about its contribution to the issue.”
“I’m not an activist. I am just a human being who is mad as hell that our leaders are continuing to ruin my planet. I have had enough of all the tokenism and all the lies”
Do the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries need to be encouraged towards biodegradable plastics?
“We have the technology to send people to the International Space Station,” Bonnin points out. “We are sending another rover onto the surface of Mars – yet, they’re saying plastic is still the best option. Alternatives are definitely part of the solution, but also just a drastic reduction in needless packaging, going back to refilling.
“We need a paradigm shift in our relationship with the planet and how we take from it. I’m inspired by economists such as Doughnut Economics author Kate Raworth, who talks about an economic model fit for the 21st century. The 20th-century model is about extracting all monetary value from resources until we throw that resource away – a very linear, degenerative model. Some designers are looking at products that give back to society and to the natural world. I know I, and anybody I speak to, would want to support that kind of business.”
What does Bonnin think of the UK government’s plans so far to tackle single-use plastics such as microbeads?
“We did make a change when it comes to microbeads. But microplastics have infiltrated every corner of our planet, including the Arctic and the Antarctic. We’ve got a massive problem on our hands. Plastic is a useful material if it is manufactured and managed properly. The point is, particularly at government level, we tend to forget how serious this issue is.”
Bonnin is emphatic: “The oceans are dying, the threat of plastic to human health is going to be overwhelming. Scientists are saying we have completely underestimated the toxic chemicals in plastic. To this day, a garbage truck-load of plastic is entering the ocean every single minute.
“In no uncertain terms, what the UK government is doing is not enough. A lot of these things are still proposals. We’ve been discussing bottle deposit return schemes for years. Sweden has been doing this for decades and had record high returns last year. But government says ‘we need to consult with the public’. That just makes me want to pull my hair out! Just get on with it!”
When it comes to proposals to impose a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic in it, she says: “This means, as a manufacturer, you can still make packaging that has 70% virgin plastic in it. Compare that with Costa Rica, which is planning to ban all single-use plastic in two years’ time. It’s simply not enough. It’s pandering to big industry. There’s no time to do this.”
Her sense of urgency is palpable: “The oceans are not able to behave as the carbon sinks they are, because of all the plastic in there. They’re also not able to produce as much oxygen as they’re supposed to. If the planet’s health falters, our future will fail. I don’t understand why that is still being brushed under the carpet when we’re talking about solutions. It makes me mad as hell because of what I’ve seen with my own eyes.”
Is the UK’s goal to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050 good enough?
“It’s tokenism,” she says. “I have it on good authority that we are never going to meet that target, even if we put the brakes on now. Meanwhile, the government isn’t actually implementing the action that could give us any chance of reaching that goal anyway. All of this talk, all these projections. None of it is enough.”
I mention reluctance to reduce fracking in the UK. “It doesn’t make sense!” she exclaims. “Meanwhile, the fracking boom in the US is flooding the market with cheap plastic. I’m not an activist. I am just a human being who is mad as hell that our leaders are continuing to ruin my planet. I have had enough of all these embarrassing communications of issues, all the tokenism and all of these, well, basically, lies.”
Presenting the 2018 documentary Drowning in Plastic
No time to lose
“The buck stops at big industry, which is still hell-bent on growth and absolutely in denial about its contribution to the issue”
Bonnin says she finds the situation is becoming more absurd. “I was in an important meeting, and the conversation switched to ‘are you stockpiling food now?’, ‘are we going to have riots on our streets?’ I almost had this out-of-body experience, thinking, ‘is this a real conversation taking place in my lifetime, because we haven’t been able to stop our rampant destruction and greed?’ At some point, I thought, okay, the consolation is I’ll be dead before all of this happens. But I won’t. It could happen in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Both David Attenborough and Chris Packham have supported Population Matters, advocating that a sustainable human population is necessary for the planet. Would she agree?
“Well, I’ve chosen not to have children, for one thing,” she says. “Not solely because of the population issue – I didn’t feel that my life path would involve children – but it is even more of a reason not to. The planet’s human population is already at 7.4 billion. It’s a closed system that has a finite number of resources. One of my favourite David Attenborough quotes is: ‘anybody who thinks you can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is either crazy or an economist’.”
How does she deal with online criticism, as a figurehead within the movement?
“I was one of the last of my peers to go onto social media. I reluctantly joined Twitter, but I follow organisations that I respect and I’ve found this surprisingly useful.”
On Blue Planet Live, Bonnin dealt with an incident where a baby turtle was snatched by a gull on camera, which got some backlash. “Actually, that was my first experience of properly being trolled,” she says. “I was jet-lagged and desperately trying to just make sense out of all the nonsense I was getting.
“I was being told: ‘you should have wrestled the turtle out of the seagull’s feet’, ‘you have turtle blood on your hands’. Very quickly I realized there is no point engaging, gave a couple of statements and then left it alone. Potentially, we are not doing our job right if people still don’t understand how nature works.”
What advice would Bonnin give to a young person who wants to become an environmentalist and sees her as a role model?
“Have fun, immerse yourself in nature and believe in the good of people, take the pressure off a little bit. I think Greta Thunberg is an astounding human being. Young people see the truth and cut through the noise.
“I totally support those going on school strikes. Some said it was irresponsible and dangerous. I found that really ironic, considering what the strike was for. We’ve got to pick up the baton now. It should be on us to fix this, and on children to be children. To them I can try to vouch that I, along with my peers, will do our very best to sort out some of the problems.”