Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


You Can’t Paper Over the Plastic

• August 27, 2010 • 10:58 AM

The new documentary ‘Bag It’ reaches from the plastic sacks stuffed under your sink to the malign role disposable plastics play in global life.

When we throw something away, where exactly is “away”?

The new documentary Bag It notes that “just because something is disposable doesn’t mean it goes away. After all, where is away? There is no away.” Plastic bags and their one-use disposable plastic kin will, like death and taxes, be with us always.

And like taxes, there always seems to be more and more plastic debris. In the United States, for example, Americans use an average of 500 plastic bags per person a year — or 60,000 every five minutes. Bags not your bag? How about the 2 million plastic bottles consumed every five minutes or the million disposable cups U.S. airline flights plow through every six hours?

This, it makes clear, is a lot to digest — or not, if, say, you’re a sea turtle.

Still, in the era of global warming and other mega-threats, as the film’s narrator asks, “Why pick on plastic bags?” In part, says Daniel Imhoff, author of the book Paper or Plastic, plastic bags, which have been available since 1977, are the No. 1 consumer item in the world.

Bag It arrives in the middle of political efforts around the world to either ban or tax plastic (and increasingly, paper) bags. China, rarely spotted in the environmental avant-garde, banned ultra-thin plastic bags in 2008; some 40 billion fewer bags were used within a year. Washington, D.C. created “a behavioral economist’s dream,” as our Emily Badger reported, when it started charging a nickel for every paper or plastic bag consumers use at grocery stores.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Moving Pictures

MOVING PICTURES
An occasional look at movies that matter.

[/class]

In possibly the biggest battle so far over bags, California’s Legislature will decide by Tuesday whether to ban plastic bags and tax paper ones. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said — but not promised — he’d sign bill AB1998, by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, if it reaches his desk. California has already been a leader in the ban-the-bag effort; San Francisco in 2007 became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags.

Bag It certainly supports such action, less as a goal in itself than as a first step on a journey.

“Sure, it’s low-hanging fruit,” said director Suzan Beraza, “and it’s not going to change anyone’s life. But once you make the change, you start thinking about all sorts of things you can do.”

The film, now in limited release at film festivals and church halls everywhere, follows a schlubby Jeb Berrier — a proxy for Beraza — after he buys a container of peach yogurt. “I mean I’m an average guy,” he tells us. “I’m not what you consider a tree hugger. I try to be informed, I try to do the right thing, but I find it can all be a bit overwhelming at times.”

He starts thinking about the plastic bag he brought the yogurt home in; his epiphany is amplified when his hometown (and that of film company Reel Thing Films), Telluride, Colo., challenges its citizens to reduce plastic bag use. His voyage of discovery eventually moves on to other disposable plastics, to efforts to restrict their use, to find an “away” for the waste whether in landfills or the middle of the nearest ocean, to see the imperfect application of recycling, and lastly, to examine the health impacts of many consumer plastics. This is accompanied by lots of interviews, ranging from a man collecting all his trash for a year in his basement to eco-scientists like Sylvia Earle and Theo Colburn. Oh, and Berrier and his wife have their first child in the middle of his odyssey.

If that sounds like a lot to cover in 79 minutes, it is.

Bag It suffers a malady shared by so many well-meaning documentaries — a mission creep that requires just one more fact on top of the heap already making your brain hurt. Luckily for the viewer, the message’s packaging is friendly and easy to absorb. Evidence of that rests in the string of audience choice awards the documentary has earned at various film festivals in the Western United States.

It’s not a fun film exactly — the scenes showing charismatic animals tangled up in plastic ensure that — but it is light without being insubstantial. On the whole, it avoids preachiness and finger-pointing. And in a closing that warms the heart of solutions-oriented Miller-McCune, it ends with a series of common-sense and relatively achievable actions that ordinary people can take right now to reduce their plastic footprint.

Refreshingly for an environmentally themed picture, Bag It mostly avoids heavy-handed anti-corporate messages, although as the film devolves, the American Chemistry Council, in particular, takes its lumps. Some or even most of the lumps are either self-inflicted or deserved (while 92 percent of the more than 200 government-sponsored studies have shown health issues arising from the plastic additives BPS or phthalates, none of the 20 sponsored by the industry have), but a handful seem kind of cheap.

Beraza said showing the other side of the issue, and there is one, was made incredibly difficult — by the other side.

“At the beginning we really wanted to show the other side. We tried and tried to get them in the film and actually had five interviews taped.” But all those interviewees signed contracts allowing them to revoke permission to show their interviews, and all of them eventually backed out.

Berrier’s Roger and Me-esque efforts to contact pro-bag forces are a running theme throughout Bag It. One particularly damning bit of an interview transcript — whether plastic-stuffed birds died from being crammed with bottle caps — is re-enacted.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers have been careful not to be anti-plastic, just anti-wasteful plastic.

“Plastic is an incredibly valuable resource,” says Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin, whose municipality voted down a 20-cent tax on bags last year. “It’s something that really has a purpose in society, and it needs to be used for that purpose.” Throwaway bags aren’t one of them.

Or as German chemist and author Michael Braungart says, “It’s not about being against chemistry or against plastic. It’s about being against stupid plastic — silly, stinking, toxic stuff.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.