Film Review: Plastic Wars

Plastic Wars – Another View on Single Use Plastics

Review by Chris Cooper

In May we reported on the film ‘The Story of Plastic’ (see the notes on the film here).

Since then, a new film has been released, ‘Plastic Wars’.  In some respects it is a better report; shorter, slightly less pessimistic, more focused on the root cause, and readily available on YouTube

 

Plastic Wars looks specifically at the motivation and tactics of the petrochemical industry over the past forty years.  As renewable energy sources become more available, the industry is looking to switch uses of its raw materials, oil and gas, to the production of plastics.

 

In the 1980’s the first public awareness of the problem of plastics waste began, and some US states threatened to ban plastic packaging.  The industry’s response was:

  1. Advertise the virtues of plastic
  2. Promote the concept of recycling

1 was successful if unhelpful; 2 was a blind alley already secretly acknowledged by the industry.  Sorting by chemical type was successfully prototyped in the 1990’s then abandoned, as only the plastic in plastic bottles had any commercial value, the other 90% ending up in landfill.  Why this should be was not fully explained.  Partly, packaging manufacturers were producing products made of multiple types of plastic which could not be separated, but one suspects that the petrochemical industry was also undercutting the price of recycled raw materials.

 

At that time, plastic identification symbols were put on packaging, but this was simply a public relations ploy to give people some confidence in the recycling process.

 

Exporting waste to the Far East for processing has only exacerbated the problem of unregulated dumping, especially since China closed the door to imports and trade switched to countries with more lax regulations.  The overspill is now finding its way into the oceans in a big way.

 

Once again the petrochemical industry is promoting recycling while at the same time engaging in a massive plastics manufacturing investment, which makes no sense if recycling was a viable option.

 

What to do?

While both films point to the petrochemical industry as the problem, they tend to take the line that this is the only point where pressure can be applied.  They recognise that the whole industry is a supply chain of many players, raw materials producers, packaging manufacturers, packaging users, packaged products retailers, consumers, waste collection and (the missing link) waste re-processers feeding back to the packaging manufacturers.  If this was working properly, the petrochemical industry would only be topping up any raw materials lost in the process.

 

However, as with any supply chain, the law of supply and demand applies.  If restrictions are applied at any point, by regulation or public demand, all stages of the process should be similarly restricted.  We as consumers have the power to let the shops know what we think, by complaining or just not buying.

 

Also, be aware of industry hype from those whose only interest is selling oil.  As with most big corporate organisations, the need for self-preservation will outweigh any moral or communal duty.

 

In defence of Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’

The latest Michael Moore film, ‘Planet of the Humans’, written and co-produced by Jeff Gibbs, questions the idea that a future with 100% renewable power is possible.  It has been roundly criticised by many in the environmental movement (such as George Monbiot),  many of whom are concentrating on a switch to renewable fuels as a way of averting climate change.

Here, environmental economist Tom Smith supports the film and says that the problems go deeper than renewable energy.  Our whole way of life and use of earth’s materials, not just fuels, will need to change.  As he says, ‘An insatiable system based on renewable energy is no improvement over an insatiable system based on fossil fuels……..If there is to be an end to this madness, we need to end the death cult of capitalism.’

Has anyone seen the film?  Depressing? Realistic? Your views are welcome.

 

 

 

World Localization Day 21 June

Local Futures is an organisation seeking to promote local economies which put the well-being of people and planet first.  They produced the film The Economics of Happiness which 2G3S showed in 2016.
Now Local Futures is organising World Localization Day, an online global festival taking place on June 21, 2020.
Organised in response to COVID-19, World Localization Day will feature eye-opening talks, interviews, music, short films and even comedy to inspire and empower individuals as we work to create a happier and more sustainable world going into the future.  HH The Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky have both prepared special messages, and other contributors include Vandana Shiva, Joanna Macy, Alice Waters, Johann Hari, Iain McGilchrist, Gail Bradbrook, Charles Eisenstein, and many more. 
Detailed event information can be found on the World Localization Day website: https://worldlocalizationday.org.

 

‘The Story of Plastic’ – notes

The Story of Plastic

2020

Notes by Linda Whitebread (personal take on the film)

 

This film from ‘The Story of Stuff’ stable reviews the situation today regarding the build-up of plastic waste throughout the world.  Crucial points for me were:

Plastic was first mass manufactured in the 1950s.  It has many wonderful qualities – cheap to manufacture; versatile; attractive to use; durable.  However its durability also represents its huge disadvantage.  Elsewhere I have read that all the plastic ever produced still exists today.

The oil giants need to keep producing oil to make a profit.  As well as being used as fuel, oil can be used in the manufacture of products such as fertilisers and plastic.  This is especially true now that the demand for oil for energy is reducing.

So the rise of plastic manufacture has been supply- (of oil) led rather than demand-led.

 

A major use of single-use plastic Is in packaging.  Paraphrased quotes from film:

1950’s: In response to the first laws limiting disposable packaging, US companies formed ’Keep America Beautiful Inc.’  Campaigning shifted the focus to litter, causing limits on disposable packaging to disappear for decades.

This later extended to recycling:

1990’s: The packaging industry continued to fight restrictions on disposables while promoting municipal-funded recycling.  In the US, plastic recycling rates increased four-fold, funded by the tax-payer.  The American Chemistry Council promoted recycling; under pressure municipalities in the US accepted hard plastics for the first time.

 

Recycling

Figures given by the film

91% of plastic has never been recycled

Currently (? not sure at what date, or whether this is one country or globally):

32% ends up as litter

40% goes to landfill

14% incinerated

14% recycled: but only 2% effectively recycled, ie becomes something as useful as what it was before.  Most is downcycled – becomes something worse – and most is only recycled once before being incinerated, going to landfill, or ending up as litter.

 

2000s: The fast-moving consumer goods industry experienced slowing growth for the first time and began marketing to the rapidly developing middle class in the Global South.  Packaged and processed foods replaced fresh.

 

Plastics have a real benefit, for example in hospitals, surgery.  The real problem is packaging, especially multi-layered single-use sachets.  Under the influence of aggressive marketing by the west, developing countries are moving from traditional sustainable, natural packaging to plastic packaging.

 

Double whammy: countries in Asia etc are encouraged to buy toxic single-use plastics, AND to receive plastic waste shipped from the west.  We have exported the problem to other parts of the world and now say they are the problem.

 

Climate Change

Fossil fuel used for plastics, much of which are incinerated.

2018: As other nations joined China in banning scrap imports, plastic incineration increased around the world.

Incineration releases many toxic materials (eg cadmium, lead, mercury) into the environment.  People living in the vicinity of incinerators have reported respiratory problems, dermatitis, infertility.

Yet the new incinerators need a supply of plastic to keep going.  There is a huge web of infrastructure from oil refineries to incinerators all working together to increase the amount of plastics in the world and reduce recycling.

 

Fracking

2005: US Energy Policy Act gave oil and gas companies exemptions to environmental and health regulations.  Resulted in a shale gas boom and a glut of raw materials for plastic production.

As well as shale gas, the oil and gas pockets release other chemicals, eg benzene, xylene, harmful to health.  Residents living near shale gas plants report headaches and respiratory problems.

2015: In the midst of the ongoing fracking boom, the US lifted a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports, setting off a rush of oil, gas and ‘plastic feedstock’ sales worldwide.

 

Huge increase in number of petro-chemical plants producing plastic.  Eg in2017 Exxon and Saudi-Arabia’s SABIC jointly opened the world’s largest plastic manufacturing facility of its kind, receiving billions in US tax breaks and other subsidies.

These plants must continue to maximise production in order to pay off the debts incurred by building them.

 

Latest developments

2018: public awareness of plastic pollution increased because of media coverage of plastic in oceans.

Response: plastic companies say that the fault lies with consumers and countries with inadequate waste recycling infrastructure.  The clean-up message, not the use of plastic packaging in the first place, has dominated the narrative.

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste was founded in 2019 by companies that make, use, sell, process, collect and recycle plastics.  It pledged $1.5 billion to a clean-up programme.

Meanwhile $204 billion was spent on 334 new petrochemical facilities (when/where?)

 

Nanoplastics ‘recently’ found in 83% of global tapwater sampled and 93% of bottled water.

 

Can we find new alternatives to plastic?

Research ongoing.

Bioplastics: (ie plant based) also have sustainability challenges, including effective biodegradability.

Cost of new fossil-fuel based plastic is artificially low because of oil and gas subsidies of $5.2 trillion pa.  This disincentivises the use of recycled content and other alternatives.

 

Way forward

Reduce and re-use.

Ban single-use plastics: recent increase in banning of different products throughout the world, eg EU, China, Rwanda, Morocco.

Fight to end fossil fuel subsidies.

Require plastic packaging manufacturers to use a minimum amount of recycled plastic.

Companies have profited by externalising the environmental costs of the plastic (eg to taxpayers who fund recycling schemes; to developing countries).  They must be made to absorb these costs.

Multinational companies are locked into their need for growth; and massive supply chains forcing them to rely on plastic packaging.  Try to move to small-scale firms, more local, alternative delivery systems, building communities.

 

Support/join Break Free From Plastic  https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/about/

 

Linda Whitebread 21/05/2020

Online screening: The Story of Plastic

    

We are delighted to announce our latest film show: an online screening of ‘The Story of Plastic’.  The Story of Stuff project was set up in 2007 to protest about our consumption-crazed culture, with a slogan of ‘Better, not More’.  ‘The Story of Plastic’ is the latest in their series of award-winning films which use animation to get their points across in a challenging but accessible way.  The film takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it is having on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it.  Coming after our Conversation Evening on plastic last year, and amid continuing concern for the amount of plastic in the environment, this is a timely topic for our latest film screening.

We have a licence for a limited number of tickets, available via Eventbrite.  Ticket holders will receive a link to stream the film at least 48 hours before 8pm on Monday 18th May.  The link will be delivered to the email address you supply to Eventbrite.  The film is 96 minutes long, and the screening link will expire at 8pm on Monday 18th May.

After having watched the film from the comfort of your own home, you are also invited to join a follow up conversation about issues raised in the film via Zoom, on Monday 18th May at 8pm.  You will receive a separate link for the zoom discussion, alongside the streaming link for the film via Eventbrite.

Do register early for your tickets, as we only have a limited number available – you can then choose when you screen the film.  We hope to see many of you at the Zoom discussion on 18 May.

Coronavirus epidemic

Please note that, as you would expect, we are not able to meet in person during the current lockdown conditions.

Planning is still going ahead online.  Contact us if you would like to participate.

Film screening: “Carnage”

In February, as part of the Cambridge ‘Films for our Future’ festival, 2G3S showed ‘Carnage’ – a mockumentary written and directed by comedian Simon Amstell – which looks at veganism in an informative but entertaining way.

Around 50 people attended the showing at The Johnson Hall in Stapleford, including several representatives of Cambridge Veg*ns.  They not only answered questions after the film, but also treated us to some delicious vegan nibbles!