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“The Story of Plastic” is a moving film that reveals where plastic comes from – and where it goes

The film exposes a global catastrophe driven by corporate interests.

Plastic. The word evokes familiarity, anxiety, repulsion, fascination. It is a product that, over the past 60 years, has wormed its way into nearly every aspect of our modern lives, but has become vilified more recently for the distressing fact that it never goes away, even when we're finished with it.

Most of us see plastic at only one brief stage of its long life cycle. That is the consumer stage, when the products we buy come wrapped in it, and we either toss them in a recycling bin or trash can afterward. But the fact is that there's far more going on prior to those plastics landing in our houses and after we deposit them self-righteously in the blue bin, and that is a process we'd all do well to understand.

A new feature-length documentary called “The Story of Plastic” does an excellent job of explaining this process. Launched on April 20 in honor of Earth Day's 50th anniversary, it was directed by Deia Schlosberg and produced by Pale Blue Dot Media, together with The Story of Stuff, a renowned environmental activist group that has made more than a dozen short films and animations since 2007.

Using archival ad footage and televised interviews with fossil fuel executives, the film shows how plastic production began in the 1950s and has been ramping up ever since. Because its feedstocks are petrochemicals, and with fracked natural gas being overproduced, the fossil fuel industry intends to channel that surplus into even more plastic. (This surplus will increase even more if gasoline consumption shrinks with a widespread shift to electric cars.)

plastic factories in Houston© The Story of Stuff (used with permission) – Plastic processing plants near Houston, TX

These production facilities, many of which are built in the so-called “Cancer Alley” regions of Texas and Louisiana, release toxic chemicals into the air and water that are largely unregulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The “nurdles,” or tiny plastic pellets, that are melted to create new products are often spilled into nearby waterways, entering the food chain when ingested by marine wildlife. The result is a toxic, poisonous environment that has been linked to shockingly high cancer rates (particularly child leukemia), respiratory problems, and infertility; and, as film shows, anyone who speaks out against the infractions is threatened aggressively by the companies.

The products are then distributed globally and, interestingly, their design differs according to the country in which they're sold. For example, a bottle of Unilever shampoo sold in Belgium comes in a large plastic bottle with writing on the back that assures its recyclability and even has a deposit pre-paid by the company to cover recycling costs. The same shampoo is marketed in Asia in a single-use, multi-layer, low-quality plastic sachet that is entirely non-recyclable. This goes to show that decisions made in company boardrooms are, in fact, perpetuating much of the plastic pollution that comes out of Asia, and that we should be blaming the companies more than the countries for lacking proper waste infrastructure.

plastic trash in Indonesia© The Story of Stuff (used with permission) – Piles of plastic waste in Indonesia

Recycling is a sham.

The film travels around the world, spending significant time speaking with plastic sorters and zero waste activists in India and the Philippines. One fascinating point is that the entire recycling industry as we know it is only possible because we have poverty. Much of North America and Europe's recyclable waste is shipped overseas for hand-sorting by marginalized, uneducated workers, often women. They divide plastics into more than 80 categories by look, feel, and smell – setting a corner on fire and breathing in the fumes to detect its type.

When plastic can be “recycled”, it is shredded, washed (with the dirty water being disposed into nearby rivers), melted down, extruded into strings, and chopped into nurdles. The process is smelly, exposed, and terribly harmful to the unprotected workers who are doing it – hardly the eco-friendly miracle that we like to imagine recycled plastic to be. Everything that cannot be salvaged is burned in nearby incinerators, jacking up rates of cancer, skin rashes, infertility, and other health problems within the vicinity.

Tiza Mafira, activist© The Story of Stuff (used with permission) – Plastic waste activist Tiza Mafira in Indonesia

Tiza Mafira, Indonesian activist and founder of the Plastic Bag Diet movement, makes a crucial distinction that I'll be quoting in the future – that being “recycled effectively” is very different from being recycled. She said,

“Most people think plastic can be recycled, but actually most plastic is very hard to recycle. Data from the World Economy Forum shows that 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up littering the environment, 40 percent is sitting in a landfill somewhere, 14 percent is incinerated. Fourteen percent is recycled, but only 2 percent is effectively recycled. Effectively recycled means that it is recycled into something that is actually as useful as it was before [my emphasis]. Most of it is downcycled, meaning that it becomes something worse. Unlike glass and metals, plastics degrade when they're recycled. Most recycled plastic is only recycled once before ending up in landfills, incinerators, and the environment.”

As we've written many times before on TreeHugger, recycling isn't real. It's a sham. It makes us feel good about what we're doing in the moment, but in reality it simply postpones the inevitable, that our trash will go to landfill (or worse) and linger for centuries to come. It fails to address the much bigger problem.

Who's responsible for cleanup?

The fossil fuel industry says it's concerned about plastic pollution, and has allocated small amounts of money toward cleanup efforts, but its main priority is shifting the responsibility onto consumers and government for dealing with waste, through greenwashed campaigns such as Keep America Beautiful and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. It does not want to be held responsible for its own poorly-designed products.

This is absurd because, as the film explains, “Plastics are driven not by the demand for them, but by the supply.” It's in the best interest of these companies to flood Asian markets with single-use plastics in order to create new markets for their rapidly-expanding petrochemical facilities. (In the U.S. 325 plants will be built or expanded by 2025 and most of this is destined for overseas.) It has nothing to do with shoppers suddenly realizing they need products in plastic, while their traditional refill models have worked for years.

Extended Producer Responsibility graphic© The Story of Stuff (used with permission)

Plastic cleanups serve a purpose, but in the words of journalist Zoë Carpenter, “They're a a great way to see how bad the problem is. We cannot rely on it as a solution.” Mafira insists that the only solution lies in turning off the plastics tap. There must be extended producer responsibility policies put in place to incentivize these companies to come up with better packaging designs, otherwise nothing will change. She went on:

“People are thinking that prevention is radical, something that comes after recycling. It's not. It's supposed to be the essential thing to do first and foremost. It has to be a policy. That's the only way you can get massive scale conversions.”

You should watch this film. Everyone should watch this film. It matters more than ever now because of the disturbing rise in single-use plastics spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, despite the lack of evidence that single-use products are safer than reusables. We cannot let this undo years of hard work by anti-plastic activists when the situation is already so dire.

The film is available for free community screenings and can be rented on a number of digital platforms. (See list here.) Read about ways to take action, by joining campaign groups like Break Free From Plastic or signing petitions calling for corporate responsibility. Trailer below.

“The Story of Plastic” is a moving film that reveals where plastic comes from – and where it goes

The film exposes a global catastrophe driven by corporate interests.