Photographs by Randy Olson, Jordi Chias, Justin Hofman
Photographs by Randy Olson, Jordi Chias, Justin Hofman

Meet the Budding Author Helping to Fight the Plastic Waste Crisis: National Geographic-Wattpad Story Contest Winner Liliana Sandberg

When National Geographic reached out to 17-year-old Liliana Sandberg to congratulate her on winning the National Geographic Planet or Plastic? writing contest with Wattpad, she made one request: “For readers of #PlanetOrPlastic stories, I ask one thing of you. Please, don't let [my story] become real.”

Indeed, Sandberg’s original science fiction story, “Ouroboros,” tells the story of Coda-9994, a whale searching for a new home planet after the plastic waste crisis made life on Earth uninhabitable. Equal parts compelling and frightening, one of the National Geographic contest judges, children’s book author Trudi Trueit, remarked that the story gave her goosebumps.

Sandberg’s story was one of more than 6,000 Planet or Plastic?-themed stories submitted on the Wattpad platform as part of the global story contest designed to wake the world up to potential impacts of single-use plastic.

Through the contest, National Geographic and Wattpad asked writers to creatively explore the alarming impact of plastic on the environment, with the aim of inspiring the next generation of stewards for the planet to do their part to protect the environment through creative storytelling and artistic activism.

Authors were challenged to share a story—real or fictional—inspired by real National Geographic photos that showcased the impact of plastic waste on marine life. By sharing stories with the hashtag #PlanetOrPlastic, Wattpad users were able to inspire others to take the pledge to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in their lives.

After reviewing the top stories submitted through the collaboration, contest judge and author Trudi Trueit commented on the sheer amount of strong, passionate entries around Planet or Plastic?: “It does give you hope for the future, doesn’t it?” Trueit said.

In total, Planet or Plastic? received more than 75,000 individual pledges from the Wattpad community to reduce their single-use plastic footprint, resulting in a total of 90 million single-use plastic items prevented from reaching our oceans.

“Since participating in the project, my entire family has ditched single-use plastics whenever possible,” Sandberg said. “We all have reusable straws, water bottles, silverware, etc. that we take everywhere. I'm proud to say that my family is now largely single-use plastic-free.”

Additionally, Sandberg was honored by her City Council with an environmental stewardship award on April 6 for her work outside of Planet or Plastic?.

Read the winning story from Sandberg below, and take the Planet or Plastic? pledge at natgeo.com/plasticpledge.

Winning Story: Ouroboros

Ouroboros, they called this ocean planet. Like the self-cannibalizing serpent, the dark, alien sea had no beginning and no end. Today marked the seventh day Coda-9994 had spent exploring this new world, and though the cachalot had seen so much in his strange life, he had never seen anything quite like this.

Taking a deep sigh through his rebreather, the whale headed down deeper. The cold, dark water enveloped him in its crushing embrace. There were no squid here, no other sperm whales, no cetaceans at all, to his knowledge. Of all the things this ocean lacked from Earth’s ocean, there was only one thing that Coda-9994 was glad to be rid of. Plastic.

Lost in memory was that halcyon world, drowned in human refuse and human carelessness. The humans had taught him all about plastic, how it was made, and how it improved human lives. According to his captors, whatever cost plastics had on ocean life was outweighed by their benefits toward humanity, and that his purpose was not to protect his ocean, but to find them a new one. Once they had a new ocean, they could have a new world, all in thanks to the heroic efforts of Coda-9994, humanity’s cetacean ally.

He grunted in disdain at the thought. Like this planet’s name, humanity’s self-destruction was an eternal cycle, one which began with a simple, foolish choice. Chase one’s tail, throw the plastic away after using it once, ignore the pleas to stop. He remembered the sight of a tiny seahorse clinging to a plastic straw because it had nothing else. That had been the day Coda-9994 realized that it would take far more than hope to change things.

The piece of his headgear connected to his inner ear buzzed to life as his captors made contact from Earth. “Coda-9994, do you copy?”

He stopped swimming and sent a message back.

- _Affirmative._-

“Please report your findings,” the voice said. “Is the planet habitable?”

Coda-9994 faltered. If he told them the truth - that this world teemed with life beneath its waters, and that humans could live here with some accommodations - then it would suffer the same fate as Earth. Asphyxiated by plastic, it would eventually cease to thrive, and no matter what they told him, Coda-9994 knew he was as disposable as a single-use plastic fork.

But if he lied, and they failed to see through his deception, perhaps they would come to realize that no alternative existed to Earth. Perhaps they would begin to make the right choices, and finally learn that it did not take a brain the size of his to figure out that their survival depended on those simple decisions. With that in mind, he sent back his reply.

- _Ouroboros cannot support human life._-

The communication device went silent. Coda-9994 breathed a sigh of relief. This world had enough for one whale’s need, but not enough for mankind’s greed.