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The Story of Plastic: New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis

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The Story of Plastic: New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis
Petrochemical facilities in the Houston ship channel. Roy Luck / CC BY 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Prigi Arisandi, who founded the environmental group Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation, picks through a heap of worn plastic packaging in Mojokerto, Indonesia. Reading the labels, he calls out where the trash originated: the United States, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada. The logos range from Nestlé to Bob's Red Mill, Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts.

The trash of rich nations has become the burden of poorer countries.


It's one of dozens of moving scenes in a new feature-length documentary called The Story of Plastic, directed by Deia Schlosberg and presented by The Story Of Stuff Project, the organization first known for its punchy digital shorts about consumption and environmental issues.

We all know by now that plastic waste is a problem — it's washing ashore on beaches, swirling in giant ocean eddies, gumming up the insides of whales and seabirds, and embedding itself in the farthest reaches of the planet. But most media coverage focuses on the end of the line — where plastics end up — and not where they came from or why.

The Story of Plastic fills that void.

The film, which made its world premiere on Sunday, takes viewers on a global journey to Pennsylvania, Texas, California, the Philippines, Indonesia, China and India, among other places. It's a trek through the supply chain that begins with fracked natural gas in the United States and ends with literal mountains of plastic waste on the other side of the world.

"I don't think most people know that if you want it to stop plastic from going into the ocean in Indonesia you need to ban fracking in the Ohio River valley," Stiv Wilson, the film's executive producer, told The Revelator in an interview earlier this year. "So our intention with the film is to show the entire system of plastic and that includes every stage and also that upstream the human health concerns are way more significant than eating fish that's eaten plastic — living next to a refinery for plastics is going to be far more dangerous."

The film exposes the flawed and failed prophecy of recycling, which works well for glass and metals but fails miserably at dealing with plastics. Only 14 percent of plastics are recycled and only 2 percent effectively, the film explains. Most plastics degrade when recycled and don't end up made into something as useful the second time around.

Heaps of useless plastic are then shipped abroad to countries like China, Indonesia and India, where much of it ends up polluting waterways and endangering drinking water and wildlife. Or it's burned next to communities and farms. Local people are left to deal with the health implications — respiratory problems, skin rashes, shorter life expectancy, cancer.

All of that makes it a "life and death issue for most people — at least in this part of the world," said Von Hernandez in the film. He works with the global collective Break Free From Plastic in the Philippines, where a local fisherman reports that these days, plastic makes up 40 percent of his catch.

As the film hops around the globe it relies on the voices of people working in their communities toward solutions to the plastic pollution problem. Shibu K. Nair, a zero-waste champion in India, has one of the most poignant lines. The "entire economy we have around recycling is possible because we have poverty," he says. Waste pickers, mostly marginalized women, work for low cost.

But even this exploitative economy is starting to unravel as more and more countries follow China's lead in refusing to take the waste of wealthier nations, and as more and more local groups unite internationally to tackle the problem at the source.

One of the key narratives of The Story of Plastic is tracking the timeline and talking points of the petrochemical industry, which produces some 400 million metric tons of plastic each year. And since 99 percent of plastic is fossil fuels, the folks behind plastics are the same as those digging for oil and gas: Exxon, Shell, Conoco Philipps, Dow Dupont.

We see how they cleverly market their products, push for personal responsibility in the face of corporate malfeasance, cheerlead for doomed taxpayer-funded recycling programs, and dole out piddling contributions for beach cleanups. All the while, they're distracting the public from the true answer: the fact that we don't need so much plastic crap.

While the industry pushes its plastic products as lifesaving (like medical devices and bike helmets), the bulk of it is stuff we didn't have a few decades ago and don't need now — things like plastic straws and single-serving packets of soy sauce. "We only use them once and they stay forever," Tiza Mafira, a policy expert and lawyer in Jakarta, said in the film. "They're not something that we need as an essential part of our lives and yet here we are — stuck with it."

Watching The Story of Plastic is liable to make you take a (likely shameful) look at the ubiquitous presence of plastic in your own life. But the film's message isn't for each of us to ditch straws — the problem is far too systemic for that. Rather it's a call for producer responsibility. Ramping up fossil fuel production, as the petrochemical industry's doing right now, is the last thing we need as we attempt to manage our climate crisis. Companies instead need to design their products with a plan for how they will be reused, composted or effectively recycled. And we need to focus way more on reducing and reusing.

"The industry is out there pushing the idea that this is all because of bad management — that the waste is here because the government isn't putting enough funding into proper waste management," said Mafira. "But they're distracting from the truth, which is that there's no way you can manage this waste — it's not meant to be managed."

She added, "I think we should ban together and have a serious discussion on a global scale because these companies are operating on a global scale."

The Story of Plastic is currently making its way to film festivals around the country. Find a local screening and more information about the movie and its messages here.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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