September 29, 2011

Film Shows We’re Drowning in a Sea of Plastic

Leo Horrigan, MHS

Leo Horrigan, MHS

CLF Correspondent

Center for a Livable Future

Plastic on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii

The documentary entitled Bag It is not explicitly a “food system film,” but its range of topics includes both the sea of plastic waste created by our food packaging and the effects of plastic waste on marine life, some of which we eat.

I was introduced to Bag It this past weekend when it was screened at the Chesapeake Film Festival on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was paired with a film that I produced entitled Out to Pasture: The Future of Farming?, which profiles sustainable food animal farmers and compares them with industrial-style animal producers.

I initially thought this might be a mismatch of films, but I ended up seeing a lot of overlap in their content. To wit, both films:

1)   Illustrate the fallout from corporate power run amok. Millions of gallons of hog waste in a “lagoon” and untold numbers of plastic bits floating around the ocean are both symptoms of a corporate strategy to shift costs onto the public and thus enhance profits.

2)   Highlight the lack of democracy in decision-making about important issues in our food system. If you were to ask citizens to design a waste management strategy for the plastics industry, they would never come up with the idea of producing plastic products that you use once, then discard so they can clutter up the planet for hundreds of years.  Nor would they decide that the waste from thousands of animals should be dumped in a hole in the ground or sprayed untreated onto farm fields.

3)   Shine a light on industries that have both a voluminous waste stream and a conspicuous lack of a plan for what to do with it all (think nuclear power). In both cases, the public is left holding the bag (sometimes literally), or the environment is left to absorb the waste—or, perhaps more accurately, drown in it.

Plastic bag in bloom

The “star” of the film, Jeb Berrier, presents himself as a poster-boy everyman and then invites us into a lot of his personal life, including the birth of his and his wife’s first child. We also follow him as he agonizes over the effects that plastic waste might have on the developing fetus and his infant son.  When the camera peered into the delivery room, my first thought was that this was going a little over the top, but I have to admit that watching Jeb’s son emerge into this world is a very touching scene and did more to drive home some of the film’s points than any speech you could devise.

Bag It covers a lot more ground than its title implies. It goes well beyond plastic bags to point out how pervasive plastic containers and packaging have become, the limitations of recycling, the health dangers that persistent organic pollutants in plastic present for humans, and what plastic waste is doing to marine life and seabirds that are routinely ingesting small bits of it from their environment, unable to distinguish them from real food.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes takes place on a remote Pacific atoll where albatrosses nest. Park rangers pick up albatrosses laid low by the sheer volume of plastic they have ingested, and presumably the toxicity of same. One mostly-decayed carcass has an assortment of plastic in the place where its stomach used to be, including 14 plastic bottle caps—one of the many types of plastic that is not recyclable.

The film introduces us to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area estimated to be at least twice the size of Texas, where there is 40 times as much plastic as plankton, the foundation of the ocean food chain. As the film’s web site points out, “that means there is 40 times more plastic than food for the marine animals to eat.”

The film informs us that not only does most plastic not get recycled, but most of it is not recyclable (usually it’s only No. 1 and No. 2 plastic that get a second life), even when it bears the familiar three-chasing-arrows recycling symbol. Notably, even when plastic is recycled, it is often converted into products that cannot be recycled again. This is a form of “downcycling.”

Dr. Theo Colborn, the environmental health analyst and pioneer in the field of endocrine disruptors, details for Jeb the risks to his child’s health from plastic-borne chemicals such as BPA and phthalates, which are used, respectively, to harden and soften plastics (think rubber duckies in toddlers’ mouths). The risks from BPA include breast and prostate cancer, hyperactivity in children, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Phthalates have been linked to infertility, lower sperm count and smaller penis size.

Actor Peter Coyote makes a notable cameo talking about the expensive test he underwent that determined his body “was loaded with numerous [synthetic] chemicals and toxins.” In the film, he demands to know, “Who gave these sons of bitches the right to poison the commons?”

This laundry list of doom-and-gloom topics makes it sound like Bag It is, like, a total downer, dude, but in reality our man Jeb makes all these heavy topics palatable with his goofy sense of humor and good comedic timing. He draws you into the story and keeps you engaged, even as the film keeps venturing into new territory.

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