Sheffield Doc/Fest film review: The Story of Plastic
Matthew Turner | On 02, Jul 2020
Director: Deia Schlosberg
Cast: Martin Bourque, Zoe Carpenter, Delphine Levi Alvares, Yvette Arellano
Watch The Story of Plastic online in the UK: Doc/Fest Selects
Sheffield Doc/Fest has gone online for 2020, with films streaming until 10th July – and others streaming alongside cinema screenings in the autumn. For more information, click here – or see our picks from the festival line-up here
Directed by Deia Schlosberg, this comprehensive, wide-ranging documentary lays bare the full scale of the plastic pollution problem facing our planet. Like the best eco-docs, it provokes anger and despair in equal measure, though it also manages to strike a note of hope.
Taking a global approach that’s as commendable as it is necessary, Schlosberg allows the story of plastic to be told by multiple talking heads from across the world. These include journalists, environmentalists, people in the recycling industry (recycling plant boss Martin Bourque is particularly good value) and victims of environmental disasters directly linked to plastic.
As the film clearly explains, the problem is that plastic is actually a highly lucrative by-product of the petroleum and petrochemical industries. In turn, those industries have been very successful in putting the blame for plastic pollution on the consumer, rather than seeking to address their own complicity.
The film also highlights two key changes in recent years that have had a huge knock-on impact on the plastic problem. The first is that China recently stopped taking the world’s rubbish, which it had been doing for decades – other countries have since taken on the burden but don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it, which has lead to widespread pollution in places such as the Philippines and Indonesia.
The second change is the relatively recent shale gas boom, which has lead to a corresponding explosion in plastic production, with little regard for the fact that the world is already in crisis. The attendant horror stories about multiple new plastic plants are utterly terrifying, not least because of the apparent dirty tricks they routinely employ to silence protestors and activists (one woman reports a helicopter landing on her lawn and the occupant shooting her dog).
The film is particularly strong on revealing the truth behind common assumptions, most notably the realities behind recycling drives. Depressingly, only 14 per cent of the plastic we diligently put in recycling bins actually gets recycled and only 2 per cent of it is effectively recycled, meaning that it’s actually made into something else and re-used. Part of the problem is that while glass and metal can be recycled easily, that’s not the case for plastic, which degrades after each use.
Throughout the film, Schlosberg makes great use of animation, handily illustrating several of the key points, such as the fact that the story of plastic is essentially fossil fuels finding new ways to flow through the economy, or someone’s helpful description of clean-up initiatives from petrochemical companies as being like trying to bail out a rapidly filling bathtub with a teaspoon.
As befits a good eco-doc, there is plenty here to inspire anger and despair from shocking statistics (of all the plastic ever produced, more than half of it has been produced in last 15 years and 91 per cent of it has never been recycled) to horrific images, such as an overhead shot of a massive landfill, or an Indonesian river choked with plastic bags.
Schlosberg also makes superb use of archive material, including propaganda from the petrochemical industries, the recent examples of which will have you grinding your teeth. Schlosberg is particularly good at giving the audience the full picture – for example, the major petrochemical companies coming together to form the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and pledging $1.5 billion a year towards clean-up initiatives and eco-friendly schemes seems like a giant step forward at first, until you realise they’re spending $205 billion a year on opening new plastic plants.
That said, the film does end on a cautious note of hope, complete with a utopian re-purposing of one of the earlier doom-and-gloom animated sequences. This is largely to do with the fact that there is growing media awareness of the scale of the problem (David Attenborough’s recent Blue Planet series undoubtedly helped) and an increase in political pressure as a result. Want to do your bit? Watching this documentary would be a good start.
Flint is available to rent for £4.50 on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects, or as part of a £36 pass, until 10th July 2020.