The Story of Plastic – Review and interview

The Story of Plastic premieres today at 2pm EST & PST on Discovery Channel. For more ways to watch, visit storyofplastic.org/watch.
Check out the trailer here. See extreme hottie Jason Momoa pimp the documentary here

What an interesting time for an oil documentary, as the global price recently went negative, spurring calls for more subsidies on top of the $5.2 trillion (according to the doc) oil and gas companies already get annually. 

Thanks to another hottie, I got a sneak preview of the film. Brett Chamberlin, Director of Community Engagement for the Story of Stuff Project, also kindly granted me an interview. 

I’m not sure how you feel about plastic, but before watching The Story of Plastic, I would say I was moderately pro-plastic. Plastic saves lives. It keeps things clean. It’s convenient. Sure, environmentalists say it’s bad for the planet. And apparently BPA is making dudes into ladies. But environmentalists lied to us about DEET and recycling, so I come at this with the assumption that they’re at least exaggerating about plastic being bad.

I definitely walked away from the film feeling more skeptical about the conversation around plastic being awesome. As the film points out, people aren’t talking enough about the early stages of the plastic lifecycle. I remember asking my dad one day when I was a kid where plastic comes from. I remember it because when he told me it comes from oil it blew my damn mind. 

I think the film is strongest when it makes aesthetic and fairness arguments. Why are plastics producers allowed to distribute the costs but concentrate the benefits of plastic production? Why are plastic producers allowed to use eminent domain to seize people’s land for fracking instead of negotiating with them? Why aren’t they prosecuted for doxxing activists, knowing it will lead to rape and death threats? 

I took some of the questions the film raised for me to Brett. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Cathy: Do people actually want to live in a world with less plastic? Activists in the film talk about localized systems versus global supply chains. The evidence is very strong that global trade lowers prices for consumers, helps pull developing nations out of poverty, and even reduces the likelihood of international armed conflict. How do you suggest we favor localized systems over global trade? Do you expect that would raise prices? How would you sell that politically?

Brett: Yes, there is overwhelming global demand for solutions to the plastic crisis including source reduction. For example, a majority of American adults said that they would be willing to pay more for everyday items in order to avoid plastic [source]. 

Our current global materials economy is a one-way path from resource extraction to production to consumption to disposal. This is a fundamentally unsustainable system on our finite planet; we must transition to a circular economy before we begin to run out of critical resources or are overwhelmed by our own waste. See below for a simple diagram of a circular economy.

Cathy: Do people want to use reusable containers? The film shows an Indian food market that uses reusable containers lying on the ground with no cover and it looks disgusting compared with pre-packaged food. An activist talks about carrying glass to the market to bring home soy sauce. That sounds heavy and annoying. Who wants to do that?

Brett: Unpackaged bulk food and reusable/refillable containers remain popular options from Bangalore to Berkeley. Open-air markets are also common around the world, from your supermarket salad bar to the spice market shown in the film. The growth in packaging-free bulk stores reveals the public appetite and market opportunity for plastic-free shopping [source]. Personally, I do not find it inconvenient to bring my reusable glass jars to the store. Contrastingly, the inconvenience of the health and environmental impacts of plastic production and disposal are borne by front-lines communities. So while a single-use plastic item may be more “convenient” for me, it comes at a cost that is externalized onto others.

For example, the film introduces folks in Houston, a region where many of the petrochemical building blocks of plastic are produced. They are periodically placed under shelter-in-place order, where they must remain inside and seal their windows and doors due to high pollution levels from local plants. What of their inconvenience?

Cathy: How bad is plastic incineration? The evidence seems mixed. Why not bury it?

Brett: Incinerators don’t magically make waste disappear. They merely transform the waste into other forms of waste such as toxic ash and air and water pollution which are harder to dispose of and are usually more toxic than the original waste.

More than 90% of waste that is burned or sent to landfills can be reused, recycled, and composted. Incinerators need to be continuously fed thus creating a never-ending demand for more waste. This discourages waste reduction and promotes waste generation.

Incinerators consume more energy than they produce. In Asia, the majority of the waste produced is compostable which produces a very small amount of energy when burned. In contrast, Zero Waste practices such as recycling and composting conserve three to five times the amount of energy produced by waste incineration.

Incinerators pose risks to the health and environment of neighboring communities as well as that of the general population. Even the most advanced incinerators release thousands of pollutants that contaminate the air, soil, and water which enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain. Aside from toxic air emissions, incineration technologies produce highly toxic by-products that are released into the environment. Source

Cathy: Why can’t Thailand and Vietnam just say no like China did? One assumes they’re making money from the deal and find it to be a net-positive. 

Brett: Waste import bans are continuing to be implemented by more nations, and international agreements like the BASEL convention are imposing additional global controls. However, these laws are only as good as their enforcement, and unfortunately some nations in the developing world struggle with corruption which means waste imports may continue in some regions despite national bans. 

It is a serious error to equate profitability with positivity. Who makes the money, and who bears the costs? While waste brokers and importers may profit, the communities where this waste ends up suffer the consequences. 

Cathy: Why not advocate for a stronger system of torts? Make it easy for people who can prove harm to sue.

Brett: This is certainly one strategy that some activists employ. For example, Diane Wilson, the shrimp boat captain featured in the film, won a $50 judgement against the plastic producer Formosa for their pollution of the local bay [source]

However, there are a couple problems with this approach. First, if penalties levied against companies are lower than the profitability of their violations, they have no incentive to change their practices. Next, this is a reactive approach that can only respond to existing harms and is therefore a poor way to proactively protect human and environmental health. Finally, it is notoriously difficult to provide harm / standing with regard to environmental pollution. For example, residents in the Houston region experience measurably higher rates of childhood leukemia, cancer, and other health issues, which correlate with the extremely high concentration of petrochemical facilities in that region. While statistical analysis allows us to hypothesize causation, it is another thing entirely for any given individual to prove in a legal sense that their cancer is the direct result of any particular facility.

Cathy: One activist claimed that polyester fibers cross the blood-brain barrier. But according to toxicologist Rosemary Waring, “There is no concrete evidence right now that nanoplastics penetrate brain tissue in humans, let alone affect behavior.” How do you reconcile that?

Brett: The research into this question is early and as yet inconclusive. Here is one study that found nanoplastic particles crossed the blood-brain barrier in fish [source].

However, looking for the “smoking gun” of a direct human health impact of micro- or nanoplastic ingestion somewhat misses the point. There is no arguing the broad human and environmental health consequences of the plastic. We already have all the evidence we need to demand a fundamental rethinking of plastic’s role in our economy.

Cathy: Why don’t cities just refuse to take plastic waste? Why not make plastic producers collect it, or pay waste collection agencies to collect it, and ship it to developing countries directly? The landowners in developing nations could then negotiate favorable terms with the plastic producers.

Brett: I agree that the companies which produce, distribute, and ultimately profit from plastic products and packaging should be held responsible for that plastic at the end-of-life; this is called Extended Producer Responsibility, and is already in effect for a number of hard-to-dispose or hard-to-recycle products like paint and tires. 

In regions like the EU where companies are forced to pay into waste collection systems, we see that companies are more proactive in designing products that are easy to recycle. Meanwhile, in developing countries where they aren’t held to the same standard, products are more likely to be distributed in single-use, non-recyclable packaging that is far more likely to end up in the environment. We need to hold companies to a higher standard across the board.

While the film makes strong moral and aesthetic arguments, I think it’s weakest when it comes to empirical claims. For instance, at one point an activist says, “There’s no way you can manage this waste. It’s not meant to be managed.” Of course you can. It may not be cost-effective, but it can be done. 

Mannan, Khan a dairy farmer at Ghazipur dairy farm claims people who live next to the landfill in Delhi, India have a 15-20 year lower life expectancy. I couldn’t find any source for this claim other than this

Brett pointed out to me that the documentary has been reviewed by independent fact-checkers. And that proving a direct causal link between a specific pollution source and any individual health impact is difficult, given the complexity of the systems within which these impacts emerge. In addition, there’s a dearth of longitudinal health research in the developing world.

At the heart of this conversation is a question about tradeoffs. If I could end subsidies for oil and gas companies tomorrow, I absolutely would. If I could put oil and gas companies on the hook for the harms they cause tomorrow, I absolutely would. 

But when it comes to other tradeoffs, I think the case is much less clear than either side is willing to admit. For example, how many hours do throwaway plastics free up for the average person, especially the average woman? Looking at women in developing nations, there’s evidence from studies of sweatshop bans that women turn to lower paid or more dangerous occupations like domestic labor and sex work when they can’t work in factories. What would women in developing nations be doing if they couldn’t sort recycling?

Are bag and straw bans worth their cost? In the film an activist says, “They’re not something we need as an essential part of our lives.” Not your life, maybe. We know that straw bans harm disabled people and reusable grocery bags harbor harmful bacteria. California’s plastic bag ban removed 40 million pounds of plastic carryout bags but caused a 12 million pound increase in trash bag purchases—with small, medium, and tall trash bag sales increasing by 120%, 64%, and 6%. Yes, producing and then throwing away plastic bags and straws has a cost. But banning them does as well. The question is what do we value and how do we calculate the cost and the benefit of each potential move? 

I liked the Story of Plastic, though I would have preferred an hour and a half about the subsidies and cronyism. But I’m weird. If you watch it, lmk your thoughts in the comments. 

One Comment

  1. Mike Williams

    Can I let you know my thoughts even though I haven’t watched the doc? My one thought is, thank you for taking a critical view of ALL the notions presented, and asking questions in your interview which gave opportunity both to elaborate Brett’s points and to make us think about how his points may not be fully correct. Great post.

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