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World Cleanup Day 2019: Zero waste and plastic-free photography

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Can a photo save the world? With World Clean Up Day taking place on the 21 September, explore tips by top Shutterstock photographers on how they empower environmental issues through powerful images.

When UK photographer ​Kev Gregory​ made his way to Horsey Beach, he expected to see the famous gray seals and their newborn pups, but he didn’t anticipate the scene that greeted him when he arrived: a seal was sitting on the beach, caught in a piece of fishing net.

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Shutterstock/Kev Gregory

“I immediately realised that whilst I was in no position to personally help the seal, getting in touch with the local welfare organisations would likely fair far better,” he tells us. “I believe that a rescue effort was made to help the seal, my images and report of time and location having enabled a prompt response.”

The memory followed him home that day, and over time, he recognised that although that seal might have found help, many others would not. “I then realised just how tragic the situation really was,” he remembers. “This was not an isolated incident.”

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Shutterstock/Vikentiy Elizarov

Two other cases that made headlines recently were the stories of Mrs Frisbee and Pinkafo, two gray seals whose necks were severely injured by plastic frisbees. They were ​rescued and released​, but another seal pup had to be euthanised after losing his nose to a nylon fishing line. Plastic pollution has become an urgent concern for local organisations like ​Friends of Horsey Seals​ as well as organizations working globally.

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Shutterstock/Kev Gregory

“This image has subsequently been used all over the world, by all manner of organizations, each dedicated to raising awareness of these kinds of situations and trying to bring about a change for the better,” Gregory says.

“Sights such as these are heart-breaking, and whilst a photographer may not be in a position to help directly, the images could possibly help indirectly, and they will almost certainly help to raise awareness of plastic pollution and mankind’s impact on the environment. I hope my images have helped save other creatures around the world from such tragic consequences of human interaction, be it industrial, commercial, or personal waste.”

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Shutterstock/Rich Carey

It’s not just fishing lines and large plastics, either. ​Microplastics​ (plastics smaller than a grain of rice) have also been found in gray seal feces, and last year, a veterinary pathologist discovered a two-inch square of plastic lodged in the stomach of a ​dead harp seal pup​ in Scotland. Approximately 700 wild animal species consume plastic, believing it to be food. The effects of microplastics on humans are ​unknown​ as of this moment, but they could be serious, as people who eat fish also ingest plastic.

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Shutterstock/Richard Carey

“Turtles can eat plastic bags mistaking them for jellyfish,” underwater photographer Rich Carey ​writes.

Plastic waste kills an estimated one million marine animals every year. As ​National Geographic reported, a photographer recently found a loggerhead turtle in Spain, trapped underwater in a fishing net. Had the photographer not intervened, the turtle would have drowned. The problem affects everyone: fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds, who unknowingly bring plastic bits to their young.

The state of plastic pollution is devastating, but there is hope, and as Gregory explains, photographers have a role to play in reshaping our future. “It is imperative that mankind brings about this change before it is too late, and that we are made aware of the damage that thoughtless actions can bring,” he continues.

“Pollution within our environment can take many forms. There may be a feeling of guilt that comes with taking a picture of a helpless creature, but the image can be powerful, and whilst it may not have the ability to save your subject, it can go a long way toward saving others.”

This year, ​Beyond Plastic ​made it to ​Shutterstock’s Creative Trends Report​, suggesting that it’s not just photographers who want to help protect the environment. Searches for keywords like “plastic-free,” “bamboo toothbrush,” and “hemp” skyrocketed with increases of 729%, 676%, and 752%, respectively. Publishers, creative directors, and businesses small and large want to make a difference, and sometimes, that difference starts with images.

Beyond Plastic is more than a trend. It’s a  movement. And there are so many ways for photographers to be a part of it.

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