Health

Truth About Plastics

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When filmmaker Werner Boote premiered his documentary Plastic Planet in his native Vienna, Austria, after 10 years’ work on it, he didn’t know what kind of effect he was about to create. Plastic had been with us for generations—but the majority of society had little grasp of the health and environmental price paid for its incredible convenience and usability.

From the public who attended the film, from non-plastic manufacturers who had been using plastics in their products, and from government officials as well, there were amazing reactions.

 

“The response has been unbelievable,” Boote told Organic Connections. “One week after the film was released in Austria, a family called me and said that they wanted to perform their own experiment and see if they could live without plastics. That was a year ago. Just five minutes ago they were on Austrian TV again—mother, father and three kids—and they’ve been living plastic free now for one year. They’ve started a movement; many more have since joined them, and there are other families in Germany, Italy and France doing the same thing.

“For the film, we tested baby bottles for the chemical bisphenol A (BPA). We also ended up testing baby pacifiers and found out that the pacifiers we bought in various shops in Europe were highly contaminated with BPA. In the end, they were taken off the whole European market. Then an Austrian federal minister banned BPA, and I started to work on a new law with the German Federal Environment Agency. On 26 November the European Commission decided to ban BPA altogether.”

(Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, is an organic compound used in many plastics. It has been proven to be linked with cancer and neurological issues, and has now been banned in several countries.)

“When I presented the film in Abu Dhabi, the Minister of Environment and Health came. After the film, he asked me, ‘So how should we start?’ I didn’t know how to answer him, because I’m a filmmaker, not a political advisor. But I had met a professor from Dubai when I was in the region, who had told me that one of three camel species was dying because of plastic bags in the desert. And so I said to the minister, ‘Why don’t you ban plastic bags?’ He replied, ‘OK, I will.’

“There are now many studies being done on plastics, and the funny thing is that some say that because of the film Plastic Planet it’s now easier to get financing for a scientific study about plastics.”

There was also quite a negative reaction from the plastics industry, an indication of how the documentary assaulted the status quo.

“When the plastics industry realized that the movie was going to open in theaters, they put together a 14-page media kit,” Boote recounted. “They sent it to all the plastic manufacturers in Europe. Among other things, it directed them to not answer any questions concerning plastics. If people had specific queries about, say, the `plastic soup’ in the Pacific, then they should call this person. If someone wanted to know more about the dangerous chemical bisphenol A, they should call that person.”

(“Plastic soup” refers to a vast area of the Pacific Ocean containing a high concentration of plastic trash, which, depending on how it is measured, may be broader than the continental United States.)

“After the film was released in Austria, the plastics industry had a ‘crisis meeting,’” Boote continued. “I was not invited, but I’m quite well connected right now, so I knew what they were doing. The meeting addressed the question of, should they publicly stand up against Plastic Planet or not? Of the 138 CEOs, only 4 said that they should go against the film; the rest said no. They were basically putting their heads in the sand and waiting until the storm passed.”

The plastics industry also purchased the Plastic Planet domain name before Boote could, and they put their own messages on the website contrasting with those of the movie.

Revealing the Issues

There is no doubt about it: plastic, with its endless varieties of possibilities in shape, color and consistency, revolutionized manufacturing. It is highly unlikely that technology would be where it is today without plastic.

At the same time, it has taken a heavy toll. Plastic Planet pries the lid off this enormous issue and shows it to us graphically, much as Food, Inc. did with industrial farming.

As covered in Plastic Planet, the amount of plastic produced since its invention would be enough to cover the entire globe six times over. That would be fine if it would biodegrade—but therein lies the stark reality: plastic stays in the ground and water system for up to 500 years. It is found on every beach in the world. Numerous studies have discovered that chemicals it releases (such as BPA) migrate into the human body and may contribute to or even cause grave health problems, from allergies to obesity to infertility, cancer and heart disease.

 

Boote himself had several family members, including his grandfather, who worked in the plastics industry, yet he was not aware of these issues until he ran across a tiny news item. “In 1999 I read a small article in the newspaper saying that fish were dying out in an English river because of a substance that leaches out of plastics,” Boote said. “I was stunned that it was such a small article. I had never heard of this problem before. I wanted to know more about it, so I started to do some research.”

Not long afterward, there was a small report in another paper that disclosed heavy loads of synthetics in the Pacific. A few days later, the same paper printed an eight-page report on the same topic, financed by the plastics industry but designed to appear as part of the paper itself. The report asserted how innovative, how environmentally friendly and how splendid plastics were. “That first little report one would quickly skim over, but eight pages really stuck with the reader,” Boote said. “That’s when I thought, ‘I’ll make a film on this.’”

Making that documentary was no mean feat. “We did a lot of research,” Boote recalled. “In the end we had 42 people working on the research—scientists and journalists together. We became connected to all kinds of universities and organizations. I traveled to 25 countries for the film, talking to people from the industry as well as scientists and politicians. Ten years later, we were done.”

Probably the most striking element of the movie—aside from the staggering statistics on plastics—is the reaction of industry executives and staff when presented with those same statistics. Time after time, Boote was met with antagonism, legal threats and abject silence.

It wasn’t that heads weren’t turned though. In at least one case, Boote’s message got home—though for several reasons this occurrence didn’t make the final cut. “I had an interview with a guy from Switzerland who was actually distributing BPA,” Boote related. “I went to him like I had done with several others: This is the situation, so what are we going to do? He said, ‘Well, if it’s really like this, I will stop selling bisphenol A immediately.’”

Solutions

 

If we are to save our planet from this environmental disaster, others in the plastics industry will have to develop the same sort of conscience. Fortunately the film details a positive development: safe plastic is beginning to be made from purely natural sources, which doesn’t affect humans or the environment at all, yet still fulfills plastic’s vital role in manufacturing.

Boote concluded with a message for consumers.

“People can start to make changes with what I call the four ‘Rs’: Refuse the plastic, which is, in my opinion, the best. Then there is Reduce, which is of course another spectacular word; if you’re reducing your garbage at home, you don’t need to carry so much stuff out. Then there’s Reuse, the third R. It is not the good R in terms of refilling a plastic bottle—that’s what I always did until I read the first studies about plastic bottles; the more you refill plastic bottles, the bigger the chance harmful substances can leach out. Reusing is a good thing when you have a plastic bag and can reuse it. On the other hand, it’s much cooler if you go to the supermarket and take out your own bag. And the fourth is Recycle; once the plastic is already there, you can recycle it, which is better than throwing it away.”

Plastic Planet will be released on DVD on Earth Day 2011 and will be available from the Organic Connections website. You can view a trailer for the movie here: http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/plasticplanet