“The future of plastics is in the trash can.” This is the epigraph of The Story of Plastic, a 2019 documentary directed by Deia Schlosberg and produced in association with #breakfreefromplastic (breakfreefromplastic.org), a global movement of over 1,800 organizations fighting to eliminate plastic pollution. The film seems likely to draw in viewers concerned about climate change, ranging from standard worriers to full-time activists, and presents statistics and estimates that are at once alarming, yet somehow expected at this point in time: 99 percent of plastic consists of fossil fuels mostly extracted by means of fracking, its waste amounting to one dump truck emptying its contents into the ocean every minute of every day, and by 2050, there will more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. However, the film goes on to present a fuller picture that many of its ilk do, and (as you may have guessed) it’s much worse than you thought.
The film begins in Washington, D.C. with journalist Zoë Carpenter, whose 2019 article in The Nation first presented the aforementioned statistics.1 “Oftentimes what I do is ask people that are close to an issue how they feel about the media coverage,” she says in her sparse office, revealing a consistent gap in coverage of this story, which mostly is of the pollution, and not where plastics actually come from. This lifecycle—from extraction, refining, production, distribution, consumption, and finally, disposal—provides the structure of the film and is invariably what makes it so successful. This is the story of those missing, obscured parts, and contrary to what the title may suggest, it is not a story of objects but rather one of people.
Tiza Mafira is a law and public policy expert in Jakarta, Indonesia and the co-founder and Executive Director of the Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement. On a boat cruising down a local river, she looks out over the pollution swirling on the water’s surface, cradled by banks of dirtied plastic where mud and stone should be. “15 years ago, I could still go to a pristine beach and collect seashells,” she observes. This timing is no coincidence. While plastic has been widely used since the 1950s, of all the plastics that have ever existed, more than half were produced in the last 15 years and 91 percent have never been recycled. A major culprit is the Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed into law by George W. Bush, which exempted oil and gas companies from environmental and health regulations and resulted in a massive increase in shale gas fracking and plastic production. Mafira presents to a room full of students with data from the World Economic Forum: 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up littering the environment, 40 percent goes to landfill, 14 percent is incinerated, and 14 percent is recycled—but only 2 percent of which is effectively recycled as marketable products. The rest is downcycled into something worse (such as the dreaded plastic bag) which will then either be littered again, sent to landfill, or incinerated.
Delphine Lévi Alvarѐs is the European coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic movement in Brussels, Belgium, and in a convenience store she picks up a bottle of shampoo. In this first-world country, the bottle is recyclable and the producer has paid a fee to cover part of the waste collection and waste management costs. These producers (here, for example, Procter & Gamble) and the industry at large often claim that it is not the production of plastic that is a problem, but rather poor waste management and waste collection, implicating the rampant pollution primarily in Southeast Asia and other developing countries. Yet, these companies then market their same exact products as single-use sachets to these parts of the world which they cite as the problem, paying no fees toward waste collection and management (or any infrastructure for that matter), ensuring that these products will immediately become pollution and will never become the elite 2 percent of effectively recycled plastics.
The systemic classism and racism of these petrochemical companies continues in the story of Yvette Arellano, who is an organizer, policy researcher, and grassroots advocate with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services in Houston. Their community is brimming with Mexican culture, but it is also a community, like so many others in Texas, surrounded by petrochemical plants—the most in the US, in fact, accounting for 41 percent of the nation's crude oil production and 25 percent of its marketed natural gas production according to the US Energy Information Administration. The latest estimate from the American Chemistry Council is that $194 billion will be invested in the US alone into 325 new or expanded petrochemical facilities between now and 2025. “It’s not uncommon to talk to folks in the community and have multiple stories of childhood leukemia, brain cancer, low birth weights or sterility, lack of motor skills, developmental issues, speech impediments,” Arellano shares. Across the US, the majority of these plants are built in and around communities of color or economically depressed areas. Kenia Escobar, sitting at a picnic table with Arellano, reflects, “I think that the farthest I’ve ever lived from a plant is two and half miles. ”
Ellen and Elise Gerhart live in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. In 2018, part of their property was seized by The Mariner East 2 project, a pipeline that will transport natural gas liquids to a complex near Philadelphia, which will then be exported to a facility in Scotland to produce plastics. (Regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia are shale gas markets at the beginning stage of their exploitation.) While pipeline activism brings to mind scenes from Standing Rock, Elise fought a smaller battle. Occupying trees in the demolition path of the pipeline-in-progress, she and her family were harassed by affiliates of the project, receiving death and rape threats. “They’ve got endless resources, and we have to live our lives. I had to go to work. So they came and they cut down the trees,” she says in her kitchen. The project moved forward as many do. But this comes at a violent cost. An analysis by the NRDC in 2019 found that, “on average, a pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days, an injury every 5 days, and a fatality every 26 days.”
Towards the end of The Story of Plastic, as in many other films, articles, or conversations on the topic of sweeping environmental reform, helplessness starts to set in. Individual action begins to feel like shouting into the void. Yet, the message brightens toward the end. “Zero Waste” programs are finding success in countries from Rwanda to the Philippines. Legislative initiatives to ban single-use plastics are gaining momentum globally. The complete and violent story of the fossil fuel industry profiting at the expense of every community on our planet is being told here in detail. But this story doesn’t end at the hour and a half mark; The Story of Plastic doesn’t just inform, it also provides the tools that empower the vitality of the individual within collective action. For about $4, you can watch the film through Discovery Channel or Amazon, but the distribution of the film has a more grassroots initiative—anyone can join or host a virtual screening of the film, which encourages communities across the country (and the world) to start and continue a conversation initiated by the film.2 The website also provides resources for campaigns that push for policy solutions and call for corporate responsibility. The Story of Plastic transcends the people and problems it presents as a film; it is part of the holistic activism required of climate justice.
As this is being written in September 2020, California is reaching record-setting temperatures, and 3,627,010 acres have burned due to wildfires (according to Cal Fire, the state’s data and fire tracking website). Over 962,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19, and an article in The Guardian from August 30 states that researchers are preparing to present disturbing new research for a UN summit on biodiversity (on September 30 in New York), that “almost a third of all emerging diseases have originated through the process of land use change […] As a result, five or six new epidemics a year could soon affect Earth’s population.”3 As species extinction continues to accelerate, so too does a global economy and way of living built upon fossil fuels. Petrochemical corporations deepen their assimilation and normalized positions in governments across the world. 2020 is not a blight of bad luck; it is a Wagnerian scene announcing that Climate Change is here and the storm clouds are getting darker. How can we begin to solve such a complex problem? Without a doubt, voting for those that advocate for climate justice, for a Green New Deal, against pipeline projects, and who will hold these corporate criminals accountable is the first order of business. But what can we do on a daily basis? Start by looking in the trash can.
- Zoë Carpenter, “The Toxic Consequences of America’s Plastics Boom,” The Nation, March 14, 2019, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/plastics-pollution-crisis-fracking-petrochemicals/.
- Community Screenings at https://www.storyofplastic.org/take-action.
- Robin McKie, “Rampant destruction of forests ‘will unleash more pandemics,’” The Guardian, August 30, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/30/rampant-destruction-of-forests-will-unleash-more-pandemics.