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Can You Imagine Life Without It?

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Issue: 59 Section: Arts Topics: Plastic, waste

March 31, 2009

Can You Imagine Life Without It?

Ian Connacher's "Addicted to Plastic" tracks our most persistent trash

by Carolyn Lebel

In the North Pacific Gyre, lost or abandoned fishing nets catch plastic and other debris. [cc 2.0] Photo: KQED Quest

PARIS, FRANCE–There are trips that change your life. For Ian Connacher, it was in 2005. The filmmaker took a month-long expedition with captain Charles Moore out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to shoot a short film about plastic.

It was here, thousands of kilometres from civilization, that Connacher first witnessed the legacy of our disposable lifestyle.

The North Pacific Gyre, also graphically referred to as the Eastern Garbage Patch, is a magnet for trash from around the world. The most persistent and lethal of this is plastic, in all shapes and sizes—from water bottles and grocery bags to buoys and food wrappers. Much of it originates from land, simply blown by the wind, or carried along by rivers, streams or from overflowing sewage systems. There are countless ways in which the estimated 13,000 pieces of plastic litter per square kilometre of ocean make their way out to sea. Once at large, much of it naturally accumulates on the converging ocean currents of the Gyre.

Where does it all go? The making of Connacher's award-winning documentary led him on an odyssey to answer that question. Photo: Cryptic Moth Productions

The Gyre is perhaps the most telling hallmark of our addiction to plastic. But one needn’t travel quite so far to get a sense of it. Plastic is everywhere. It is in our cars, iPods, toothbrushes and pens. Our babies suckle on it, and our food is wrapped in it. But as Connacher discovered at the Gyre, one of the qualities that makes plastic so valuable—its durability—is also what makes it so problematic once it is no longer in use.

Plastic does not biodegrade. In the ocean, however, it often breaks into miniscule bits that marine life often mistake for food. In other words, what starts on the outside of one woman’s salmon filet—in the form of wrapping—could very well end up inside the bowels of another man’s anchovy snack.

The ratio of plastic to plankton is about six to one at the Gyre. It is easy to imagine how such litter is massacring marine animals that ingest the synthetic crumbs or otherwise get entangled in larger objects, such as discarded nets or containers. But there’s more. While plastic repels water, it acts as a sponge for oil and other toxic chemicals. Animals that eat tiny oceanic pellets are in fact ingesting highly concentrated doses of toxic pollutants. Some of these are linked to the kinds of gender-bending hormone disruptions that have found male accessory sex organs in female snails.

The Gyre was a call to action for Connacher. “'Alphabet Soup' (the short) told the story of how plastic gets out to sea and how it affects the food chain. It wasn’t a happy story,” recalls Connacher. “It is impossible to clean the area. So I wanted to find solutions.”

When Discovery Channel turned down Connacher’s idea of adapting the short into a feature film, the filmmaker quit his job, took his life savings and set off on a plastic odyssey that took him to 12 countries around the world. “It was two years of not getting paid and living out of bags. But I knew that the story was compelling and needed to be told.”

The result is an 85-minute, award-winning and habit-kicking documentary. There is one information byte from the film that, like plastic, lingers. Every piece of plastic ever made, except for the small amount that has been incinerated, still exists.

As the film demonstrates, beyond much-needed radical social change, the search for solutions to the mounting heaps of plastic waste leads to two technological fixes. One: take what’s already out there and give it a new life—recycle. Two: search for alternatives to the polymer that are more earth-friendly; substances that can be naturally absorbed back into the ecosystem without putting additional strain on limited natural resources.

"Addicted to Plastic" explores many of the finest examples of recycling in the world, from cozy Patagonia jackets and hand-made Indian handbags to designer wedding dresses and railroad ties. But the limits to these solutions become palpable in India, the country that boasts one of the highest recycling rates in the world, in a scene that the filmmaker describes as one of the most horrific experiences of his life.

“There were rotting cows, hypodermic needles and, I could have sworn, body parts,” Connacher recalls. Entire families of rag-pickers subside on this garbage dump in India. “The soil was bubbling up and part of it was on fire. Pools of insects were hatching and dengue fever was known to be in the dump. And there were children running around collecting crap at the back of garbage trucks, getting paid a dollar a day.”

India also informally imports much of the world’s e-waste, under the guise of charitable donations. Computers, printers, monitors and other ever-rapidly obsolescent electronics come to scrap yard settings for recycling by hand. “You have 10-year-old girls pulling apart circuit boards and handling toxic materials,” says Connacher.

Bio-plastics, made from everything from corn to chicken feathers, make an appearance in the film. While novel forms of seemingly environmentally friendly alternatives are becoming available, habits are harder to break.

It is perhaps for this reason that Connacher is banking on kids. The filmmaker is working to get his documentary into schools and libraries. “The younger generation, they are the ones who are going to have to clean up the mess, alas. Grade six classes have sat through the whole film and asked amazing questions. That inspires me more than anything.”

And if demand cannot be capped, shrinking petroleum reserves may ultimately force civilization to kick its addiction to the material of infinite uses. Connacher recalls one kid asking, “What would the world look like without plastic?”

Carolyn Lebel is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Paris.

For further information, or to buy a copy of "Addicted to Plastic," click here.

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