Winner of the Audience and Jury Prize for the Amazonas Film Festival, Brazil
“It’s beautiful. You know, you can buy everything you can find for almost everything in plastic, and you say ‘Ah, this is nice!’” – a plastic fan.
“I feel that [plastic has] probably been very important for humanity over the last fifty years. It’s allowed us to achieve incredible things.”- Adam Walters, Greenpeace
“It can change with our styles and with our civilization, it can change with tastes, it can change its colour. It’s the modern clay.” – Rob Krebs, American Chemistry Council
It’s probably fair to say that we all believe buying goods (pencils, food, electronics, etc.) with less packaging is a good thing, and when we separate our trash and drop the plastic rubbish into the blue box for the morning pickup, it all gets recycled, and we can feel confident we’ve done our part for the environment.
As director Ian Connacher points out in his startling documentary, Addicted to Plastic, when something is created that cannot be virtually degraded by nature, it never goes away.
The development of degradable plastics is a good thing, but a lot of what we use – new trash as well as old – has penetrated some very disturbing levels of the food chain and the ecosystem, and Connacher makes the case that all is not well in our world via a simple boat trip to the North Pacific Central Gyre, aka the Eastern Garbage patch, where air pressure and rotating water currents swirl and push all kinds of floating trash to the water’s surface.
As the director and his cameraman help the crew of a chartered boat pull out bottles and fishing nets and light switch panels covered in barnacles and filmy crud, and show us bottles of the concentrated muck resembling some fibrous puce vomit wherein small organisms live, it kind of makes it obvious that on a global scale, recycling efforts may have come too late, and they aren’t sufficiently widespread.
The blame game is familiar and routine: the plastic industry says it’s public behaviour that needs to embrace responsible use, disposal of, and recycling of plastic; the recycling industry says they’re now getting products – something as simple as a bottle cap treated with an unknown coating and seal - that contain an impregnable blend of recyclable and non-recyclable plastics and other hybrid substances; and the municipal collection agencies, who are in the middle of this mess as they organize the materials we’ve stuffed into blue boxes, are stuck with those problematic items the recycling industry can’t themselves break down.
Most of us probably don’t know how plastic is made (it’s actually small resin beads known as nurdles that are ‘building blocks’ of common objects), and while some of us may have harboured suspicions of toxins leaching into our food from containers, the danger is more insidious. “By its nature,” explains Connacher, “plastic attracts oily pollutants, such as pesticides and herbicides that flow downstream from farms,” and when mistaken for food, the dirty plastic, often nurdles and mistaken as fish eggs, is ingested by some of the creatures we eat, including marine and water fowl.
Several documentaries have focused on industries in China and India that strip down trash to its bare elements (60% of all plastic is recycled in India), but Connacher also examine how local people are dealing with their own plastic waste; that editorial decision breaks the stereotype of locals often perceived by the west as ignorant and uneducated people, and it places them on equal footing as ordinary citizens equally affected by a disconnect between industries and governments.
That point also leads to the nightmarish lives of the poor living off trash, and much like the small townships and post-apocalyptic landscapes in Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), Connacher’s glimpse of a New Delhi garbage dump reveals an apocalyptic world of humans and animals sorting through filth, while plumes of toxic dioxin gas flows into the air from fires fed by limitless heaps of combustible plastic.
Addicted to Plastic is frightening because it shows the grossness (physical and just plain disgusting nature) of our waste, and how the disposable lifestyle of the west is poised to be dumped on the powerful consumer base in Asia; if a mall culture develops in India, posits Connacher, there could be an even worse explosion of plastic waste, and one can only imagine the level of crap that will cloud up already sullied gyres, as those governments lack the financial power to curb industrial waste.
The film’s final reel deals with the more recent hot-button issue of potential chemicals leeching into what we eat, drink and breathe, such as Bisphenol A, which made headlines in Canada when its use in baby bottles was banned due to concerns of the chemical leeching into the milk consumed by babies.
In spite of the valiant recycling efforts by small industries, local towns, and crusaders who try to hold the plastics industry accountable for the strange and sometimes dangerous ingredients in their products, there is no easy solution, because it’s not just about floating trash, but the unknown effects of living with products that are virtually everywhere, and virtually indestructible in nature.
It all makes filling a plastic cup at the water cooler, heating up a can of soup, or taking a shower with exfoliation beaded soap kind of creepy.
Addicted to Plastic is a smart, wryly funny, and illuminating film that packs a lot of facts into a dynamic narrative. Beautifully shot and edited, the bare bones DVD is available directly from Cryptic Moth Productions.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan