The Story Of Plastic


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Story Of Plastic
"This is a well-constructed film, featuring not just strong talking head material, from experts and those bearing the impact of the industry across the globe, but also smart animations that crystallise the issues."

At least part of the story of plastic - its largely unhappy ending as an environmental blight - has taken up a lot of column inches and documentary space in the past few years, as awareness of things like the ocean gyres that have created concentrated seas of debris have caught public attention. David Attenborough's Blue Planet II, in particular, took a dive into the problems wrought by plastics in our oceans - a subject that is, again, touched on here.

But Deia Schlosberg's thorough film - which is screening as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest's virtual edition this year - shows that where plastic ends up is only the depressing coda to a much more complicated and worrying story. She gradually reveals how a narrative that puts the emphasis on us, the consumer, and our bad habits with waste, has been fuelled down the decades by the petrochemical giants who would prefer us not to look further up the food chain to consider how and why plastics are being produced in the first place. What began as a waste product for the industry became both a cash cow and a golden goose, that they will do just about anything to protect.

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Schlosberg chooses her illustrative stories well. There's the boss of a recycling plant busting many of the myths about 'recyclables', revealing how the complex packaging of much of what we buy is impossible to repurpose, then there's the consideration of the way Europe and American used to ship much of the waste to China - out of sight and out of mind. As China decided it no longer wanted to be the rubbish collector of the world, Schlosberg shows how alternative countries have stepped into the fray but with less infrastucture and an even bigger impact on the local environment.

Half a world away in America,  there is pollution of a different kind, as petrochemical companies frack for gas and build pipelines - selling the story that the gas is needed in the US, when the reality is that the product is for shipping another world away, to places like Grangemouth in Scotland, where it will be processed into, you guessed it, plastics. Activists in America also put forward their claims that the petrochemical and fracking plants there - which are being opened at an alarming rate - are polluting local waterways. Schlosberg also shows how nimble the petrochemical industry is at shifting its stance, so that as companies reduce packaging in Europe, an explosion of sachet-driven produce is happening in the Asian subcontinent and Africa.

This is a well-constructed film, featuring not just strong talking head material, from experts and those bearing the impact of the industry across the globe, but also smart animations that crystallise the issues. The sight of a cartoon person attempting to empty a bathtub with a spoon while the tap is fully on, for example, perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of cleaning up when so much plastic is still pouring into the 'food chain'. We're not drowned in statistics, but those that are included - such as the fact that more than half of all plastic that has ever been produced, has been made in the past 10 to 15 years - are well chosen.

Schlosberg also makes good use of archival film, illustrating how at pinch points in history, the industry has come up with cuddly sounding not-for-profit companies like the Alliance To End Plastic Waste, to deflect attention from its continued drive to produce more and more of the stuff. Despite the amount of ground covered here, this never feels like a simple primer, with Schlosberg packing detail in at every turn. She encourages us all to pay attention to the men behind the curtain before it's too late to start a fresh chapter in the story of plastic, one in which the narrative is driven by the consumer rather than pushed by big business.

Reviewed on: 11 Jun 2020
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Considering the cost of the plastics industry.

Director: Deia Schlosberg

Writer: Tony Hale, Deia Schlosberg, Brian Wilson, Stiv Wilson

Year: 2019

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US, Belgium, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines

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